Cooperate or Collaborate? - ASCD
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July 1, 2019

Cooperate or Collaborate?

Your team's purpose could determine its process.

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Adults in schools expend a significant amount of time and energy working in teams. Therefore, it's worth taking the time to examine how we organize these teams and the extent to which they are designed to achieve their purposes.

One way to do this is to think about cooperative versus collaborative teams. Cooperative teams are those that aim to achieve goals more efficiently and effectively, while collaborative teams explore and solve problems that individuals alone cannot. While this may seem like a fine distinction, collaborative and cooperative teams should function in different ways, and while they aren't mutually exclusive, they do serve different purposes, frequently require unique approaches, and experience conflict in different ways. Determining the end goal of your team's purpose can help you decide if you'd be better served with a cooperative or a collaborative team. Your decision may have implications for your team's membership, norms, and process.

All About Cooperation

As stated, cooperative teams, which are the most common in schools, aim to achieve everyday goals more efficiently and effectively. To do this, they share resources, coordinate joint efforts, work to improve processes, and build standardization and quality.

A school leadership team that mostly functions as a cooperative team may focus on improving current school practices. For example, let's imagine a school leadership team that hopes to strengthen its policies and practices regarding field trips. In this particular school, teachers must receive approval from their department chair or grade-level administrator before taking their students off campus. However, different administrators expect different levels of justification from teachers and use a different set of criteria to make decisions. As a result, the quality and value of field trips vary widely across the school. Furthermore, teachers from different departments and grade levels are subject to very different expectations for how to plan off-campus learning and provide appropriate communication to students, families, and caregivers.

To solve this problem, the team shares their current approval practices across departments and grade levels and creates a standard field trip approval process. The team then communicates this standard process to teachers. The team's cooperative efforts have helped teachers, who now have clear expectations and guidelines. Students, families, and caregivers will also benefit from these improvements, as they can expect more consistency with how off-campus learning is planned and communicated.

An example of a teacher cooperative team might be one created to ease the daily demands on the teachers' time by sharing instructional resources such as lesson plans and curricular materials. Teachers on the team delegate tasks to each other to improve efficiencies, such as having one teacher photocopy materials for the entire team or having another teacher build a draft of an assessment rubric for the other teachers to use. Teachers work jointly to prepare activities and lesson plans, and grade student assessments together to ensure standard norms and practices are being used across classrooms. All of this activity has the potential to be mutually beneficial to teachers, the school, and the students they serve.

A successful school certainly relies heavily on a great deal of cooperation. Without cooperative teams, schools would be less efficient and organized, and individuals would be denied powerful opportunities to learn and benefit from each other. However, even with high levels of cooperation, there are still problems and opportunities that will remain elusive. While building a standard field trip approval process may create more consistency and improve efficiency, it likely won't help the school grapple with more fundamental questions like, What role does off-campus learning play in our school's instructional vision? or How do we use community resources to create rich and authentic experiences for students? While teachers who share resources may benefit from each other's work, simply sharing lesson plans and materials likely won't help teachers delve into issues like what sorts of learning experiences will engage the students they are most struggling to reach or gain ideas on how to build stronger relationships with their students. These questions require deeper inquiry and more extensive problem solving. Such questions are ripe for collaborative teams.

The Big Picture of Collaboration

Rather than just sharing resources or improving existing processes, collaborative teams explore complex problems, develop deeper understandings of the challenges and opportunities the problems present, and work to develop thoughtful solutions. To do this, collaborative teams often engage in a different set of activities than cooperative teams do. Rather than team members assuming they already know the problem, a collaborative team spends more time exploring the problem. It utilizes the experiences, perspectives, ideas, and insights of its team members to explore what's really going on beneath the surface, and works together to create new approaches that don't currently exist.

A school leadership team that engages in collaborative work, for example, may decide to focus on a troubling disparity that shows up on a school climate survey in the reported sense of belonging between students who identify as white and students who identify as black. The team might hold focus groups with students, reach out to families, enlist the support of teachers, review research, and look outside their school for models from schools that have faced a similar challenge. Through this process, the team may discover root causes that they had never previously considered, such as their current offerings of extracurricular activities, the racial makeup of the adults in the building, the racial and cultural competence of their staff, the curricular materials in particular subject areas, and the academic course-tracking practices of the school. Now, with this deeper understanding of the problem, the group can engage in the challenging work of devising a thoughtful set of actions to address these newly uncovered challenges.

Role of Conflict

In any team situation, conflict will inevitably occur. But collaborative and cooperative teams are likely to experience and react to conflict differently. In a cooperative team, conflict may more likely be seen as a detriment. It's far easier to share resources and agree upon necessary changes to processes when team members share similar ideas, perspectives, and beliefs about the problem they are facing and the solution they should be pursuing. With dissenting opinions, alternative perspectives, or different fundamental assumptions, cooperative teams may struggle to realize some of the efficiencies for which they were hoping.

This is likely why we often see teachers cooperating with those with whom they already philosophically and practically align. For cooperative teams, conflict is likely to be seen as something to avoid, not something to welcome. In fact, some cooperative teams find ways to remove dissenting voices, because they can be perceived to be a problem for the team, rather than a resource.

Efficient members of cooperative teams make concessions or attempt to reach quick compromises to resolve conflict and keep the work moving along. Consider the leadership team attempting to build a standard field trip approval process. If their purpose is simply to create more consistency across the school, the administrators will most likely keep their focus on the mechanics of the process—proposal templates and timelines—and not address bigger questions, such as "What is the purpose of field trips?" In fact, if the team started to discuss their personal perspectives on field trips, they could very well surface significant disagreements that may be difficult to reconcile, and thus stall the actual progress they were making on the problem at hand.

Collaborative teams, on the other hand, often actively lean in to differences and explore the complexity of the problem. While a collaborative approach may not help a team reach a "solution" more quickly, members don't forfeit the opportunity to collectively deepen their understanding of the problem. As they express their hopes and concerns, the team can start to visualize a more complete picture of the opportunity or challenge, and that picture grows even more comprehensive as additional voices are brought to the table. When and if conflict arises, these differences in fact fuel the team's collaborative efforts. Solving complex problems requires learning, and we stand to learn the most from those who are different than us.

Building Teams

Before members of a team begin their work together, they should have a clear and explicit conversation about their purpose. This can be done by discussing what problem they are trying to solve or what opportunity they are trying to pursue. Once members are clear on the team's purpose, they should re-examine whether the right people are at the table. If the problem or opportunity they are pursing is well understood and well defined, then the team should consider whether the current team members already have the insight, knowledge, and expertise to address the problem, and determine the types of cooperative activities that will support their efforts. These activities may include sharing resources, building systems to coordinate joint efforts, and finding ways to build efficiency or consistency.

On the other hand, if the problem or opportunity is less understood, ill-defined, and will likely require a great deal of learning, the team should consider whose voice is not at the table (but should be), and the types of collaborative activities that can support their work. Since collaborative teams don't start their work with the assumption that they fully understand the problem, the team must ensure that its membership is inclusive enough to build a comprehensive picture of the problem or opportunity.

Furthermore, they must build norms that support collaborative work. Rather than immediately brainstorming solutions, the team must first investigate the problem. Rather than working to build quick consensus, the team should encourage divergent perspectives. Rather than assume they have the expertise to develop a solution, the team should seek widely for input and insight.

Far too many teams suffer because they lack a coherent identity that defines their role and purpose. In schools, where time is perhaps the most precious commodity, individuals can quickly grow weary and frustrated with teams whose purpose is unclear. A team member who sees the problem as complex but works within a primarily cooperative team may feel that the team is not digging deep enough into the real issues. A team member who wants to leap into action but is on a collaborative team may grow frustrated by team members who ask too many questions. Team leaders can support their teams by establishing clear expectations for the team upfront and reinforcing the norms that will support their work.

However, I should note that most teams are not purely cooperative or purely collaborative. The question of cooperation and collaboration is certainly not a question of either/or, but understanding the distinction can still be important in organizing team activities. Some teams may attempt to achieve multiple purposes and designate different structures and times for cooperative and collaborative purposes. For example, a team might choose to dedicate a standing weekly 45-minute meeting to its cooperative efforts where they share resources, provide each other with progress updates, and find efficiencies in their collective work, and also engage in two-hour monthly meetings dedicated to collaborative efforts, where they spend time exploring and problem solving around more complex challenges or opportunities. As always, the teams' choices of issues on which they will focus their time and energy are an expression of priorities and values—and a fundamental question of the practice of leadership.

Intention and Focus

Schools must rely on both cooperation and collaboration to improve systems, solve problems, and fix inequities. However, understanding how cooperation and collaboration can be different, both in their purpose, their approach, and their relationship with conflict, can help educators assess whether they are approaching their teams with the right level of intention and focus.

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