Collaboration Confusion: Clarifying Vocabulary

by Denyse Doerries, Ph.D., and Sue Land, M.Ed.

How often do you hear: "We do inclusion." "I teach the inclusion kids." "I work in the inclusion class." "I teach in a collaboration class." "We don't do collaboration here." "I co-teach in three different classes during one block." Do you ever wonder what these terms mean? The words "inclusion," "co-teaching," and "collaboration" are often used interchangeably even though they have different and distinct definitions.

The Virginia Association of Secondary School Principals, the Virginia Department of Education, and the Training and Technical Assistance Center at the College of William and Mary are sponsoring professional development workshops with Dr. Marilyn Friend for administrators and school teams across the state on Collaboration for the Success of All Students. Dr. Friend begins these workshops by carefully defining the vocabulary that is needed for successful collaboration, but that is often confused and misused. Administrators, teachers, other school personnel, and parents benefit from having a common understanding of terms associated with effective inclusive practices. A shared vocabulary helps prevent miscommunication and provides a universal language to promote understanding. The power of words to frame how teachers work together to meet the needs of all students should not be underestimated. "Without a shared vocabulary, it is difficult to design, develop, and evaluate effective practices, and communicate them to staff members and the community" (Friend, 2007, p. 5).

In order to facilitate understanding of the words we use to describe inclusive practices, this article clarifies the following terms: "collaboration," "inclusion," "co-teaching," and "effective inclusive practices."

Vocabulary Chart
Collaboration "is a style for direct interaction between at least two coequal parties voluntarily engaged in shared decision making as they work toward a common goal" (Friend, 2007, p. 7).
"We collaborated to develop a lesson plan in math to meet the needs of all our students."

"I teach a ‘collab' class."
Comment: Collaboration is not a service delivery option; it is a style of interaction (Friend & Cook, 2007).
Inclusion is a belief system "in which everyone belongs, is accepted, supports, and is supported by his or her peers and other members of the school community in the course of having his or her educational needs met" (Stainback & Stainback, 1990, p. 3).
"We believe all our students should have opportunities to participate in all aspects of school life."

"We believe our students with disabilities can be included in the general education classes when they can handle the content and behave appropriately."
Comment: "Students should never have to earn their way into a general education environment" (Schwarz, 2007, p. 40).
Co-teaching is two or more educators who jointly deliver substantive instruction to a diverse group of students in a single space (Friend & Pope, 2005).
"The general educator and I share the responsibility of planning, preparing materials, and delivering the content to our 5th-period English class."

"My co-teacher and I don't have the time to plan together so I work with the students with disabilities in a small group in the back of the class."
Comment: There is more to co-teaching than placing two teachers in the same classroom space at the same time.
Effective inclusive practices are practices that provide students with disabilities appropriate education within general education classrooms of their neighborhood school, with the supports and accommodations that promote success.
"We plan to use graphic organizers and add a motivational component to enhance core-content classes to support students with emotional disabilities."

"We put our inclusion students in classes with other at-risk learners because it will be easier to address all their needs."
Comment: It is important to schedule students and teachers in a thoughtful way based on student needs (Walther-Thomas, Korinek, McLaughlin, & Williams, 2000).

Schools can provide opportunities for teachers, other staff, and parents to explore the vocabulary that often causes confusion. Listed below are activities that may be conducted at faculty or team meetings.

  • Provide school faculty and staff with vocabulary terms and definitions on separate 3x5 cards. In small groups, ask them to match the terms with the definitions. This provides an opportunity for participants to discuss the terms and share their viewpoints. Finally, spend time discussing the correct matches and clearing up misconceptions.

  • Using the Vocabulary Chart above, school teams can add their own examples and non-examples to clarify the terms.

  • Using a chart, teams can describe each term by how it looks and sounds.

Looks Like
Sounds Like

Two certified teachers

Shared classroom space

Diverse group of students

Equal responsibilities

"What can we do to help all students?"

"What do you think...?"

"Let's try..."

The foundation for establishing a school that uses effective inclusive practices is to define common vocabulary to enhance communication and articulate beliefs. If we are clear in our vocabulary, then we are clearer in our practices.

To help schools develop effective inclusive practices, Consideration Packets are available through the Training and Technical Assistance Center at the College of William and Mary (, including "An Administrative Guide to Creating Inclusive Elementary Schools," "Strategies to Create Inclusive Schools," and "Co-Teaching."


Friend, M. (2007). Collaborating for school success. Training material presented at VASSP/VFEL in collaboration with Virginia Department of Education and the College of William and Mary workshop, Williamsburg, VA.

Friend, M., & Cook, L. (2007). Interactions: Collaboration skills for school professionals (5th ed.). Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Friend, M., & Pope, K. L. (2005). Creating schools in which all students can succeed. Kappa Delta Pi Record, 41(2), 56-61.

Schwarz, P. (2007). Special education: A service, not a sentence. Educational Leadership, 64(5), 39-42.

Stainback, W., & Stainback, S. (Eds.). (1990). Support networks for inclusive schooling: Interdependent integrated education.

Walther-Thomas, C., Korinek, L., McLaughlin, V., & Williams, B. (2000). Collaboration for inclusive education: Developing successful programs. Needham Heights, MA: Allyn and Bacon. Baltimore: Brookes.

Date: May/June 2007