When Do Teachers Cooperate and When Do They Collaborate? | Barkley

When Do Teachers Cooperate and When Do They Collaborate

Zachary Herrmann published an article in ASCD’s EL titled, Cooperate or Collaborate, that made connections for me in my work with Professional Learning Communities vs Professional Working Communities and Teams vs Franchises. I’ve been defining these as:

  • PWC – Professional Working Community –teachers collaborating to get work done.
  • PLC – Professional Learning Community- teachers collaborating to learn how to get a student learning outcome they are not getting now.
  • Franchise – teachers meeting and working together to design things that they implement in their classrooms independently.
  • Team – teachers taking shared responsibility for the success of all students across their various classrooms.

My experience is that many of the groups being called PLCs, are really PWCs and that most of the groups labeled as teams are at best well-functioning franchises.

Herrmann differentiates between cooperative teams and collaborative teams.

Cartoon illustration of two man holding coop or cooperation word

Cooperative teams are those that aim to achieve goals more efficiently and effectively, while collaborative teams explore and solve problems that individuals alone cannot.

That matched my thinking regarding the difference between PWCs and PLCs. The PWC is asking, “What is the best way for us to get this done?” The PLC is asking, “What do the students need us to learn?” The PLC focus is on getting a different outcome in student achievement than what we have now. Thus, we need to learn something; that is the purpose for our collaboration. Some groups I work with have identified they have the need for both PWCs and PLCs. I have suggested that they identify PWC and PLC sections in the agenda for their meetings, as the two activities require different member behaviors. It’s important to know in which activity one is engaged. I worked with a school that had a room for PLC meetings that had an oval table with white boards on each end of the room. They handled their PWC agenda on one wall and then switched for PLC. Physically turning signaled the time to shift membership behaviors.

Herrmann pointed out that cooperative teams are most common in schools. Teachers share resources, coordinate joint efforts, work to improve processes, and build standardization and quality. That fits my description of the franchise. Plan and design together but implement individually. Cooperation can be important in having teachers agree on what “mastering a standard” means. For 8th grade science teachers from two different middle schools to identify that students entering high school have mastered a standard takes substantial cooperation.

However, there is often no understanding of what is occurring in each other’s classrooms as a common plan is implemented. I had an opportunity to observe three fifth grade teachers each conduct a science lesson that they had designed at a grade level meeting. All the students completed the same “group activity.”  One teacher’s questioning and probing of the groups throughout the activity generated a much deeper level of engaged thinking and richer student learning as shown in the products produced. When the teachers debriefed the lesson, this difference in outcomes was identified as stronger or more interested students.

Herrmann stated, “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.” He adds that collaborative teams utilize the experiences, perspectives, ideas, and insights of its team members to explore what’s really going on beneath the surface and work together to create new approaches.


That’s the reason I see it as a necessity to have student work consistently present at collaborative PLC meetings. It’s also a strong indicator of the value of PLC members observing student learning production behaviors in each other’s classrooms. These concrete elements of “what is happening” will lead to greater insights and discoveries of enhanced ways to generate the desired learning outcomes.

Reading Herrmann’s thoughts I am thinking that some of the dissatisfaction within PLCs could be the lack of clarity in when members are cooperating and when they are collaborating:

  • Cooperative teams make concessions or attempt to reach quick compromises to resolve conflict and keep the work moving.
  • Collaborative teams value conflict; differences 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.

Consider reading Herrmann’s article at a PLC meeting and after a short discussion labeling some elements in the agenda as topics for cooperation or collaboration.

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