Lessons from Berger: Austin’s Butterfly and not accepting mediocrity

Austin's Butterfly.  The final draft was always within him. It just needed to find a way out.
Austin’s Butterfly. The final draft was always within him. It just needed to find a way out.

I’m preparing a CPD input for teachers at my school sharing some of my current thoughts about teaching.  One of the ideas I want to share comes from Ron Berger – and I got this mainly from David Didau and this post here: http://www.learningspy.co.uk/assessment/improving-peer-feedback-with-public-critique/

The video by Ron Berger, as featured in David’s post,  is worth watching, even if getting a first grade class to ‘look like a scientist’ doesn’t feel too close to what you do in your lessons. :

I always love the boy early on, bursting with conviction in his knowledge: “It’s a Tiger Swallow Tail”;  “I knew it!!..

There are lots of things to take from this video:

1) The nature of effective critique. Most obviously, Ron is showing that critique that is kind, helpful and very specific, focused on a well-defined outcome is immensely powerful.  He is also showing that children can learn to do this.  Austin improved his butterfly based on feedback from his peers. David explains this in detail in his excellent post.

Lesson: It pays to give feedback in this fashion as teacher but also to teach students how to give feedback.  Not only does it help the recipient, it helps them to crystallise their understanding of what success looks like.  Let’s teach critique better and use it more.

2) The value of re-drafting.  Imagine if the teacher had just left it at draft one! Or even number three? There was more to come from Austin but he could have been allowed to stop short, to move on to something else before he’d fully explored this particular process. How often do we do that?  I’d suggest that too often we accept work from a student that is mediocre..far short of their best…and don’t enable them or insist that they go further.   Re-drafting or, more generally, improving work is under-rated.  Austin found out that he could draw a superb butterfly; the teacher found out that he could too – because he was given time and space to continually improve.  In fact he went back a bit in order to move forward… that was part of the process.

Obviously, with that experience or real success, you’d hope he could achieve a higher standard within fewer re-drafts on his next effort.  However, if he’d only done draft one or two of the butterfly, he’d have had a weaker platform of experience from which to base future work on.

Lesson: Let’s not accept mediocre efforts and move on.  Perhaps, as part of an approach to differentiation, some of our students could benefit from doing fewer pieces of work..with more time to re-draft selected samples of work until it is absolutely brilliant.  That would give them the experience of success as well as a message about standards and expectations.  If we settle for mediocrity, can we ever expect those students to dazzle?

3) The growth-mindset aspect.  The thing that strikes me most about this video is the contrast between Austin’s first and last drafts and the way that changes your perception of this unknown first-grader.  Presented with the first draft.. you might think that that was what Austin could do; that was him.  Presented with the final draft, you’d think he was a very much more talented young boy.  But it is the same boy… the final draft was always in him; it just needed to find a way out – with some help from his friends.

How often do we pigeon-hole students, fixing them into a category of attainment and more or less expecting their work to reinforce that pre-determined view? Do we challenge students enough when they hand in mediocre work and say ‘no – you are capable of so much more than that..let’s see what else you can do?’  I think that too often, we allow students to under-sell themselves; and so they do.

Lesson:  Let’s’ think about the possibility that every student  is a possible Austin.  With some judicious feedback, could we be getting Tiger Swallow Tails drawn like a scientist from each of them instead of the infantile sketches of a first grader?  Let’s challenge our early impressions of students and give them more time to produce work of the highest quality..so they know what it feels like; so they get that sense of achievement and get a taste for more.

I am no expert on critique per se but there are lots of people who are. As has been pointed out to me today, with thanks to Tait Coles, Darren Mead, David Fawcett and Martin Said, there are some superb blogs and documents about critique and feedback.  David has compiled them at the end of this excellent post:


I thoroughly recommend reading the post and following all the links at the bottom.

Update. Did Austin Learn Anything?

I always pose this question as a follow-up in any CPD?  Why? Because we need to deal with the possibility that, some time later, Austin might not remember how to ‘look like a scientist’. His butterflies of the future might revert back to his more basic offerings?  This  might be because he was too reliant on the critique feedback and that later, left to his own devices, he wouldn’t have been able to self-assess and make the changes needed to match the standard he showed in Mr Berger’s lesson.  This is ‘satnav’ syndrome – where we just follow instructions without thinking too hard for ourselves.  We reach the destination without learning the route.

To avoid this it would be essential for Austin to be given opportunities later on to capitalise on his new-found sense of self as someone capable of excellence, by trying a similar activity by himself – without all the help.  If he can produce the same standard of work independently, some time later, then we might say he’s truly learned something.

Further Update: Ron’s message!

I just received this message from Ron himself, with a link to his excellent website.

Screenshot 2019-05-26 at 16.10.38
Models of excellence website.


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