Explaining Collaboration to Learners

I took 10 minutes to watch at Edutopia.org Learning and Working in the Collaborative Age: A New Model for the Workplace – a presentation by Randy Nelson, Pixar University, at the Apple Education Leadership Summit this past April (embedded below). I know there’s a cohesive message in this presentation, but I didn’t quite catch it because the presentation was densely packed with a number of thoughts or ideas that hit upon recent or important topics for me. I’m interested in hearing what you may take from the video. I focused on several key thoughts that ultimately may help explain to learners several things they can do to help facilitate a collaborative effort rather than a cooperative one.

Collaboration vs. Cooperation This was the last topic Nelson discusses, but for me, it brought the video segment together. It hits upon an issue I blogged about a few weeks ago: the distinction between collaboration and cooperation. Nelson describes the two concepts more succinctly, cooperation is a protocol that prevents people from getting in each other’s way as they work, but their working together is a matter of convenience than true necessity. Nelson offers an assembly line as an example; each step of the assembly line is clearly defined; the line proceeds in a manner to prevent a worker at step 3 from getting in the way of the worker before or after them. Other than they’re working on completing a single large task, there’s no real communication or interaction required between the two workers. A cooperative effort usually helps make up for a lack of time or resources; many people work on the task since it would take one person much longer to accomplish it. Dr. Reeves described cooperation as “divide and conquer.” Ultimately though, given time and resources, one person could run an entire assembly line single-handedly. Collaboration means something very different. In contrast to cooperation, collaboration is more than simply making a contribution to the work effort. In a collaborative workspace, people amplify one another; the good work of one person magnifies the work of another. Individuals enhance the impact of contributions by others on the team; interaction and communication are necessary. The question is how to teach learners to accomplish that; how to participate in a collaborative manner rather than a cooperative one; and how to design and develop activities which lend themselves to collaboration rather than cooperation. Nelson described a few approaches taken by Pixar in various business processes that may be relevant.

Apply Key Principles of Improv Nelson notes Pixar encourages and applies two key principles of improv in an effort to facilitate collaboration and innovation. The first is, “Accept every offer.” In improv, when a colleague hands a line (product) off to you, you don’t question what you’ve been given; you accept it and move forward with it. Questioning the product halts the conversation; the conversation dies. The alternative is to accept it and move forward with the possibilities. The second is, “Make your partner look good.” The key is to focus on the positive; don’t judge or criticize as a first step. Always working to make your partner look good allows you to, as Nelson calls it, “plus something.” Focus on “This is what I have, what can I add to it? How do I make my partner look good?” That’s a more productive approach that leaves open possibilities which contrasts sharply with where the conversation goes if you focus on how to fix or improve a product you’ve been given. Focus on how you can contribute to the conversation.

Be Interested, Not Interesting Nelson described several characteristics of potential employees that Pixar hopes to find – innovative, accomplished and resilient were among them. And, of course, when searching for a next employee among a group with those attributes, you find many interesting people. However, Nelson commented that it’s more important to be *interested* than it is to be *interesting*. When working in a collaborative environment – in contrast to cooperative – the person that’s interested contributes a great deal more. An interested person leans in and listens closely when group members have something to say; an interested person is curious about solutions other than the first one suggested. An interested person is more concerned about the process than their role in it. An interested person does more to amplify the people around them.

Communicate, Not Transmit I think similarly, Nelson stressed the importance and definition of the ability to communicate. Communication is more than simple transmission. Effective communication inherently involves translation, and the translation must be done by the communicator, not the listener. For example, most everyone has encountered IT support personnel in some shape, form or fashion. Some IT personnel “emit” information rather than communicating; they don’t consider the audience and don’t make an effort to translate from tech-speak to English. Further, communication is bi-directional; you must be able to receive information as well as send it. Ideally, the information you receive helps shape the information you choose to send.

Collaboration in the Classroom? So, what do learners need to know to better understand what collaboration really means?

  • Collaboration absolutely requires the participation of two or more people; if you could accomplish the work by yourself, you’re cooperating, not collaborating.
  • Collaboration Is enhanced by “accepting every offer” and “making your partner look good.” Focus on what you can add to what others have suggested rather than revising or fixing their ideas or solutions.
  • Collaboration is facilitated by group members that focus on being *interested* rather than being *interesting* – be curious about others’ ideas, explore the possibilities, enjoy the process rather than focusing to quickly on the outcome.
  • Collaboration demands bi-directional communication in which your ideas are shaped by the ideas of others; you must work to make sure your ideas are comprehensible.


  • I think there's a factor missing here in your establishment of the lines in collaboration vs cooperation — either that or *I* don't understand it either. A possibility that's not too far fetched.

    You cannot collaborate UNLESS you cooperate. Cooperation is, therefore, a necessary condition to permit collaboration. Cooperation by itself is not sufficient to attain the level of join interaction that we mean by collaboration.

    The idea that 'if you could do it by yourself, then what you're doing is cooperating' is, I think, not quite on the mark either. The production line example is a good one. I think that's an excellent example of pure cooperation in action – so long as we understand what we mean by it.

    I do a small job, and pass the results down the line for the next person to do the next small job, until when the work falls off the end of the line, it is complete. Every person on the line is not interchange-able as would be required if your condition of "if you could do it yourself" was a good diagnostic. The drill press operator doesn't have the same skills or knowledge as the lathe operator. No, they don't require communication or interaction, but neither of them could do the whole job on their own. I would maintain that this is not a matter of convenience but rather a logical application of skill and knowledge to solve a larger problem.

    I think the key distinction MAY be that in a purely co-operative effort, the work is defined independently from the input of the participants. In a collaborative effort, the participants define the outcome through their participation.

    A production line is clearly cooperative, not because of issues of convenience, or necessity but rather because the work that the group must accomplish is established independently of their participation.

    A collaboration uses cooperative behaviors to create works that are not defined externally to the process but rather by the actions of the group involved.

    In the first instance (cooperation) the group produces a predicted and prescribed product. In the second, the product maybe established in advance (say, writing a book) but the actual instantiation of that idea depends on the contributions of each and those contributions are not established in advance.

    I think I've said the same thing about four times, which is a good indication that I'm rambling. So I'll stop.

  • Nathan,

    Appreciate the discussion. I think we're agreeing that collaboration is more than cooperation.

    I think your explanation is accurate regarding the nature of the product to be delivered being influenced by collaboration or not influenced in cooperative efforts.

    That definitely fits with the examples I had in mind when writing the post originally. If learners do not influence the product each is developing – it's cooperative; they've "divided and conquered."

    And in terms of the assembly line, given enough time, resources and training, one person could hypothetically run the entire line themselves. Given the skills, they could do it, because it's cooperative. One person completing collaborative work is not feasible under any circumstance – even hypothetical.


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