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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.

Learning Evolution & Connectivism Resonance

I have to admit that there is no question that I am learning differently now than I was five or ten years ago. For one, I was able to complete my Master’s degree from a Chicago university, after moving to Boston, by completing three online courses. This was nearly five years ago and that wasn’t even my first foray into online learning. The blossoming of the internet into a faster and easier vehicle for communication has changed much of how everyone learns. Have a question, search for an answer. Depending on the question, the answer may be a fraction of a second away from appearing – fraction of a second! This now mundane fact of life still manages to astound me. The deepest well of resources in the history of mankind, for many, is literally in the palm of hand. Immediacy of that kind has stunningly powerful consequences for both life and learning.

I have always been a fairly voracious reader. However, the volume I read has increased exponentially over the last ten years. I still love books. My house is filled with them. However, I recently lamented about how few I have read cover to cover recently. I still read some books that way but the way I read has changed, which is why I now love books even more when they are available in some digital form. When this is the case, they become more than books, more than the sum of their parts because the parts are so much more available, pliable, usable.  In fact, my very notion of what a book is has morphed into something that is more aligned with the abstract notion of a text, something readable.

My learning has grown even more personal since the time I was a student. Of course some of this is a function of maturity, but the availability and accessibility of indulging my research interests is a kind of fuel for learning. Better still is the immediacy of available information. Much of this has made for a far more immersed in information experience, the kind that I craved as a student but is now so much more available, can go deeper and broader. Also, with greater volumes of digital content and search recall is not quite as labor intensive as it once was. I now embrace the messiness of learning with much greater relish as a result of the technology innovations.

Another way my learning has changed relates well to connectivism, in that the number and quality of available connections has increased substantially. If I am investigating something I have greater unfiltered access to sources of information than ever before. So, I can attempt to contact someone with the expertise I am seeking with greater ease and probably a better chance of success. The technology has facilitated connections with data sources that simply were not nearly as readily available in the past. In fact, I would submit that the technology encourages contact with these data sources. This might be one of the first resonances I see with the learning theory.

Additionally, the relation to brain function and neuroscience has my interest peaked in terms of resonance. It seems to me, that regardless of whether or not the theory holds up as a legitimate one worthy of academic research and life , it does offer a valid framework through which to view learning. For my purposes this is enough. It may be a theory for the now, but from what I can tell that is all that is reasonable. As perceptions and knowledge change with new discoveries this theory may become more brittle, but that is proving all too common and doesn’t necessarily invalidate it. For one, I am still stuggling with where there is room for developing knowledge and understanding independently or in isolation. So even my own understanding of connectivism is evolving but I certainly recognize it possibly offers some serious insights.

Thinking About Adolescent Literacy

After reading Mary Zehr’s “Southern States Urged to Tackle Adolescent Literacy,” published online from Ed Week, I was struck at again how often major media articles are guilty of gross oversimplification.

The article chronicles the call for a detailed problem to address “the most critical priority for public middle grades and high schools,” adolescent reading weaknesses, a by a sixteen state regional education board. It also articulates the need for more professional development of teachers in the area of reading strategies. It all triggered some thoughts that I often have regarding the “reading crisis.”

I don’t think many would argue that more needs to be done to improve the reading ability of students beyond primary school. In my experience, I share the notion that we too often stop reading instruction too early. However, I would clarify that it is formal instruction that wanes. While this fact might be fine for a student in the context of a rich literacy environment or reading culture, it leaves those who are not at a significant disadvantage, one that only grows worse with every year it is not addressed. Students from strong reading cultures seem to almost default into making inferences, connections, and gleaning deeper understanding. As the gap widens and stratifies between students it is not surprising that reading becomes a “critical priority.” Addressing the priority may require more formal instruction. Yet, formal instruction need not be the boring, mundane, old-time religion that many of us can be tempted to roll-out in an effort to address the problem.

Most students read all the time, even the “non-readers” to a great extent. Of course they do not always read what schools deem as important, as others have highlighted eloquently. I would also suggest that they do not typically read deeply, unless it is something that appeals to them in some profound way. The reasons for this are many, likely far too many to itemize in a single article.

Still, I am always amazed at how easily we tend to forget or dismiss the fact they we live at time when more human beings are literate and schooled than at any time in history. More people than ever can read. Now, this is a different metric from reading well, but it is something that should at least be acknowledged as some measure of success. There was a time, not that long ago, that only the smartest or the wealthiest learned any kind of literacy skills. Plus, consider that it really is not until the fourth or fifth grade that most students are truly reading at a level that reaches any kind of adequate proficiency, meaning they are reading texts of length and complexity without a lot of illustrations. Thus, most adolescents have only been really reading, a skill with an array of increasingly complicated and sophisticated demands, for far fewer than ten years.

Yes, the demands placed on our students have only increased and better practices are the only way to foster students who read well, but these increased demands require increased innovations in our teaching. We simply are not solving the same kinds of problems anymore.

On a related note, Jim Burke’s English Companion Ning has recently begun a web-based discussion group around Kelly Gallagher’s recent book Readicide: How Schools are Killing Reading and What You Can Do About It, which has some spirited discussions and keen insights and includes responses from the author. I suspect it would be interesting for many reading this.