Collaborative vs. Cooperative Learning And Their Place In Democratic Education

Program Standard 2

2. Instruction – The teacher uses research-based instructional practices to meet the needs of all students.

2.2 Element – Engaging Students in Learning

2.2 Example of Proficient – Most activities and assignments are appropriate to students, and almost all students are cognitively engaged in exploring content.


Democratic education can have a profound affect on students in terms of how they approach their peers and their learning. This educational method “aim[s] to develop ideal citizens who could live in and enhance society, who could fulfill themselves in and through it, and who would even be able to help and revise it” (Joyce, Weil, & Calhoun, 2015, p. 248). Thus it is important for students to be able to work collectively towards common goals in the classroom. This style of teaching can help students develop many skills pertinent to life after school and will allow them to explore topics through divergent perspectives. When done effectively, democratic education has the potential to create more thoughtful, engaged, and tolerant students capable of considering viewpoints outside of their own. Joyce, Weil, and Calhoun (2015) asserted, “It appears likely to nurture interpersonal warmth and trust, respect for negotiated rules and policies, independence in learning, and respect for the dignity of others” (p. 255). The positive effects of democratic education are apparent so the question is not whether to implement it in classrooms but how to.

Both collaborative and cooperative learning are engaging ways to get students thinking democratically and collectively. These terms are often used interchangeably but are in fact two distinct teaching approaches that teachers can employ during group work. Collaborative learning is the process of students working together to gain new insights and direct their own learning. Students have more individual efficacy which drives them to teach their peers new information by presenting their unique perspectives on a topic. Students generate their own goals and do their own research to find resources pertinent to their self-determined learning target. Often times multiple perspectives and outcomes are present at the end of the learning process (Roberts, 2004, p. 205). This collaboration allows students to set aside their own ideals and to see issues from perspectives outside their own. Contrarily, cooperative learning is recognized as group work directed by the teacher and not the students. The teacher provides students with resources and a learning target and students work together to come to a single consensus and produce one outcome (Roberts, 2004, p. 205). While this type of learning does not afford the same level of student efficacy as collaborative learning, it does provide students with vital cooperation skills that will help them succeed in life after school. Both of these styles of teaching have individual merit but they can also be used in conjunction in classrooms to help student learn a wide range of cooperative and collaborative skills.

Often teachers utilize a blend of the two styles to their benefit. They can provide students with the opportunity to explore in groups and pick their own learning outcome within a range of topics controlled by the teacher. Teachers can also direct learning by picking the subject matter for student to explore but still allow them freedom to research it independently. When teachers learn to seamlessly integrate both collaborative and cooperative learning, or elements from the two, the benefit to student achievement and engagement will be noticeable. Dean, Hubbell, Pitler, and Stone (2015) stressed, “By intentionally incorporating the elements of positive interdependence and individual accountability, teachers set the stage for students to be responsible for their own learning, the learning of those in their group, and the ability to demonstrate what they know, understand, and are able to do” (Chapter 3, para. 14). These methods of teaching can require more flexibility and planning from teachers but the benefit to students is well worth the effort.

Dean, C. B., Hubbell, E. R., Pitler, H., & Stone, B. (2012). Classroom Instruction That Works: Research-Based Strategies for Increasing Student Achievement (2nd ed.) Denver, CO: McRel [Kindle DX version]. Retrieved from
Joyce, B.R., Weil, M., & Calhoun, E. (2015) Models of Teaching (9th ed.). New York, NY: Pearson. [Kindle DX version]. Retrieved from
Roberts, T.S. (2004) Online Collaborative Learning: Theory and Practice. Hershey, PA: Information Science Publishing. [Kindle DX version] Retrieved from

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