We talk a lot about collaboration when it comes to teaching in modern learning environments. It’s used in terms of the way teachers work with each other, the way teachers work with students, and students work with students. But are we talking about the same thing?
Collaboration, when it comes down to it is one of those words that has perhaps become slightly difficult to define. Dillenbourg as far back as 1999 suggested that the term had become fashionable and had resulted in overuse and overgeneralization; something that he suspected made it difficult to articulate the various contributions that authors were making on the subject.
So when a group of teachers we spoke with recently talked about their team situation, a number of scenarios arose. For example at times the group talked about working alongside each other on a particular task, or to solve a particular problem. They’d work together, all contributing to the discussion, until a decision had been reached, or the task completed. Picture it in Lego, it’s everyone, hands on, building the same model. Is this collaboration?
Or how about the example of the same group of teachers taking a task, breaking it up into parts, and then, individually, going off to complete the different sections of it. Later they return, between them putting the pieces together, and using this approach, complete the task. Is this collaboration?
Thirdly, the example of something needing doing, an event needing organising, and one person taking it on, coming back to explain to the group what is going to happen. Would this be collaboration?
Arguably, and coming back to Dillenbourg (1999) in a collaborative approach work is done together whereas in a more cooperative approach a task is split and then ‘reassembled’. He refers to this as the ‘division of labour’ and adds that many consider collaboration to be synonymous with collaboration. The third example above might better be considered as ‘coordination’ with one party taking the lead role, and simply reporting back.
A number of authors have written on the different stages of collaboration as it shifts from coordination, to cooperation, to collaboration (Peterson, 1991). Possibly though in a teaching team sense, there’s not such a neat and tidy movement through the stages. Instead depending on the task, the purpose, and the level of input required from everyone, maybe teams shift between collaboration, cooperation and coordination.
Perhaps therefore, when approaching a particular task, teaching teams need to be mindful of the approach that is most appropriate, at that particular time, for that particular job, before deciding if they will collaborate, cooperate, or coordinate.
Or maybe, just maybe, this just a case of semantics, and to what extent does it matter how we define ‘collaboration’ anyway? Perhaps, we just need to get on with it!
Dillenbourg, P. (1999). What do you mean by collaborative learning? In P. Dillenbourg (Ed.), Collaborative-learning: Cognitive and computational approaches. (pp. 1-19). Oxford: Elsevier.
Peterson, N. L. (1991). Interagency Collaboration Under Part H The Key to Comprehensive, Multidisciplinary, Coordinated Infant/Toddler Intervention Services. Journal of Early Intervention, 15(1), 89.