Distinctions Between Cooperation and Collaboration

I have been thinking about the subtle distinctions between cooperation and collaboration as part of my Flat Classroom Certification course. It has been one of those slow burns, taking a while to stew in my mind before I could begin to capture it all.

As cliche as it might seem, I took a much closer look at the definitions of the words, particularly since I now focus on Greek and Latin roots for vocabulary with my students. Interestingly, both words hail from Latin and their roots even reveal a ever so slight distinction. They are clear synonyms. However, the Latin root for cooperation means “work with,” while the root for collaboration means “work with,” as well as “work together.” This small distinction is subtle but significant. For one, the simple difference between an adverb and a preposition suggests a lot about the nature of the words. I guess this is the English teacher coming out in me.

Cooperation is more about encouraging certain kinds of behavior between participants. As suggested by the prepositional nature, it is about relationship. The relationships involved in cooperation, however, always seem unequal, even if only slightly at times. It is about helping and harmony. Thus, cooperation often entails compliance with strongest, lead individual.The cooperative individual act in a desirable or requested way. In groups, cooperation always involves a certain degree of ego submission to ensure that no one rocks the boat and that some benefit is achieved.

In contrast, collaboration is more about participants engaged in production. As an adverb it modifies the doing of something, making something. The relationships involved in collaboration are generally more equal in status, engaged in a joint effort. It is about creativity and common goals. Collaboration involves a more fluid dynamic, leadership shifts and changes, for example, or accommodates multiple leaders. Collaborative individuals act in a task focused way. In groups, collaboration involves more of a governing of ego rather than any type of submission, much more challenging.

Even the second root of each word “opera” and “labor” suggest subtle distinctions. The root “oper” means work, which is pretty direct and simple. The root “labor” means toil and trouble, which is far more nuanced. Therein is where the challenges begin.

Interestingly, students are are much more apt to engage in cooperation, rather than true collaboration, particularly at the middle and high school levels or adolescence. It doesn’t take too long for them to begin seeing where they can do their bit and be done. As long as they have a clear direction or are responding to someone’s desire they have a better chance of success.

This may very well be developmental as they begin to assert themselves into the world with varying degrees of developing confidence and self efficacy. Cooperation seems a more natural evolution to me, with its relationship centered interactions. From a very young age children learn how to help and do what a parent desires. Plus, we are all social creatures after all.

Successful group work requires significantly more collaboration than cooperation, more give and take than simply following or responding. Yet, students struggle because the interdependent nature of collaboration is higher order thinking and requires more sophistication and skill. Ultimately, I think collaboration requires some discrete instruction and undoubtedly requires a fair amount of trial and error. As one of its roots suggests, collaboration can cause trouble.

When asked to work in groups, students often bristle. I think this occurs for a few reasons some more obvious, like lacking or weak skill, and some less obvious, fear and concern about how they will be fairly assessed.

We teachers can take some steps toward developing the skills through scaffolding collaborative activity. One of the simplest guiding measures is simply recognizing the amount of potential fits and starts that will be experienced. From there, key step is identifying clear roles that are equitable but essential to achievement of a common goal. Designing cumulative and recursive tasks that are interdependent is another step to build skills. Introducing protocols to help guide and manage routine activity, but more importantly how to address members that are struggling to collaborate. Modeling these skills for students is challenging. They are not always easily observable, especially at first. The interdependence makes for a lot of overlapping and dynamic activity.

Perhaps the greatest scaffolding can be done in terms of assessment. Ironically, I would submit that assessment of process should be central to collaborative efforts, which are focused on generating a product. This makes it easier to assess individual members and concentrate on timely feedback. Additionally, public peer-to-peer feedback should be encouraged and can be effectively modeled by highlighting exemplar instances. Also giving group members an opportunity to evaluate each other and self-assess themselves in both public and private ways in a meta-cognitive manner paves the way for iterative progress.

I may have gone a bit overboard here, but I think these distinctions matter. Moreover, the clearer we as educators can be about the nature of the tasks and activities we are designing the better. Distinguishing which experiences call for the simpler cooperation and which call for the more advanced collaboration undoubtedly will contribute to greater success. As with all sophisticated skill development, however, ensuring that students are provided with multiple, frequent collaborative opportunities is a must.


3 thoughts on “Distinctions Between Cooperation and Collaboration

  1. John Todor

    Thank you for the thoughtful post. The distinction is important as I am afraid the people jumping on the collaboration bandwagon tend not to see the distinction. I would add an addition “C” work to typify what is often associated with cooperation, that is, consensus. In the case of collaboration, two minds function as three, elevating the issue to a new level as oppose to finding common ground.

    John I. Todor, Ph.D.
    Alliance for Business Innovation

    1. akh003 Post author


      Thanks for reading and leaving some feedback. Interestingly, I came very close to discussing the “C” you mention, consensus. However, I ended up cutting that thread as the post was already running fairly long andI wasn’t sure that I was ready to give it proper treatment. It is definitely something that I want to explore in future, especially within the context of cooperation and collaboration. Nevertheless, i couldn’t agree more with your assessment that collaboration as two minds that function as three.

  2. CK Chevalier

    I am working with a community partnership that combines schools, juvenile justice, mental health, law enforcement and then any additional youth centered agencies that wish to particpate. We have struggled mightily with believing and labeling what we are doing as “collaborative” but our results are rarely in creating something new but more coordinating services that support common goals or close service gaps.

    I really believe that in an increasingly information and global world structure we all, and especially educators need to recognize the distinction (you’ve done a great job here) between cooperation, coordination and collaboration. As with anything, this is a far greater challenge for adults then for children since we adults have to give way to decades of habit.

    Thanks for the post, for the comment on “consensus” – which does hamper real collaboration – as a parting gift I recommend any and everyone take a look at the Appreciative Inquiry Commons website. If you are interested in the distinctions mentioned here you may also care deeply about bringing about change through strengths and by recognizing positive deviants in your communities.


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