September 29


The Big History Blog: Collaboration and Goldilocks Conditions

By Susan Fine, Instructional Designer

50 kids

5 educators

3 schools

13.8 billion years of history

Big History at a glance.

What the numbers don’t reveal is the collaboration that our adventure through this modern, scientific origin story has inspired. In many ways, we have what Big History refers to as the “Goldilocks Conditions”: when everything is “just right.”

In Big History, the Goldilocks Conditions enable greater complexity. For the Global Online Academy Big History Team, they enable meaningful collaboration.

What are our unique Goldilocks Conditions?

The catalyst: an initial online discussion

We first met online and connected around ideas and hopes for the first ever interschool, blended Big History course. Jake Clapp, GOA’s academic dean, set up a discussion forum in Canvas, asking everyone to watch David Christian’s TED Talk, “The history of our world in 18 minutes” and then to respond to the question “What might students stand to gain from learning about the world through the lens of Big History?”

That was it. We were off. The posts and replies began. We engaged with each other. We read and listened and asked questions. From the initial prompt, replies grew well beyond Big History to encompass the purpose of studying any history to our backgrounds and hopes for new history courses such as “Global America.” The conversation continues every day.

A diversity of teaching and world experiences

We come together online from Seattle, Minneapolis, Columbus, and Madaba-Majna, Jordan. Our teaching experience ranges from a year in the classroom to more than 25 years. Some of us love Downton Abbey; some of us do not.

A shared mission and shared responsibilities

Our shared mission to teach an excellent Big History course drives our agenda, rather than attachments to individuals’ scholarly interests or preferences. We divide up responsibilities, providing leadership roles for everyone and continual feedback, which leads to ongoing improvements.

Growth mindsets

Big History encompasses information from multiple disciplines and from about 13.8 billion years. Nobody is a Big History expert. Every day we learn something new. We are becoming better educators through this challenge. We believe we can improve and have much to learn, which Big History quickly illuminates. It’s humbling and inspiring.

Vast resources and support provided by the Big History Project

Our starting place is the Big History Project, which provides rich resources and “just in time” professional development (what you need, when you need it). Starting with their course set us on a foundation from which we can take advantage of and adapt the materials for our own three-school, blended course. And, the Big History course is often revised in response to teacher and student feedback.

Tools that enable collaboration across three time zones

We email daily. We Skype weekly. We connect when we have questions, successes, and messy classes. We share student work and marvel at the kids across three schools connecting with each other in our discussion forums and in Canvas chat (IM), where they have started to answer each other’s questions.

The success of this collaboration is worth noting, given widespread enthusiasm for collaboration. How often it works, however, and how many people embrace it merits consideration. Our “Goldilocks Conditions” may reflect what Brian Uzzi, a sociologist at Northwestern, discovered when pursuing research aimed at determining the ideal composition of a team.

Uzzi pursued the question by studying Broadway musicals, where interaction is essential and ubiquitous. The most successful shows had an “ideal level of Q,” also called the “bliss point.” As Uzzi describes in Jonah Lehrer’s New Yorker article “Groupthink: the Brainstorming Myth”:

These teams had some old friends, but they also had newbies. This mixture meant that the artists  could interact efficiently — they had a familiar structure to fall back on — but they also managed to incorporate some new ideas. They were comfortable with each other, but they weren’t too comfortable.

Not being too comfortable may be a determining factor for what Lehrer illuminates about the crucial role of debate for meaningful collaboration. In exploring the work of Charlan Nemeth, a professor of psychology at the University of California at Berkeley, Lehrer underscores her idea “that debate and criticism do not inhibit ideas but, rather, stimulate them relative to every other condition.”

Knowing that there will be 18 ninth graders waiting in the classroom on Monday morning may also drive our collaboration, which rests on trusting each other, giving up some control, speaking up when we don’t think something will work, and taking on 13.8 billion years of history together.


Learn more about Susan Fine on our website: