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Primary Education News
News The butterfly effect in schools: sharing simple ideas can have a big impact
Tim Brighouse talks about his career-long love for education tips and encourages schools to share more of their simple but powerful good ideas
Tips for teachers have always had an undeserved bad name. When I started teaching in 1962, I couldn't get enough of them but they were in short supply in my theory-dominated PGCE course. I couldn't see the relevance of my tutors' theory and they frowned on my enthusiasm for tips to survive and then thrive. It puzzled me then and it still does. Surely theory becomes relevant with experience and enables you to distinguish between likely good and bad tips.
I went on to help run local education authorites where I was similarly fascinated by 'tips' for management and leadership. In the middle of all that I had four years in a university running its education department and its PGCE course where we followed Oxford's lead in making it more school based, and therefore valuable to would-be teachers and their host schools.
It was my mid-career university job that I found a theoretical justification for my love of useful tips as it provided me with the chance to read all the books I should have read when I was an undergraduate. In the course of my voracious reading, I learned about 'chaos theory' and in particular the illustration of little things having large impact – the 'butterfly effect' – so called because if sufficient butterflies whirr their wings in the Amazonian rain forest a tornado can be unleashed hundreds of miles away. Of course not every time but sometimes if the climate and conditions are right.
Armed with theoretical backing, I have been fascinated ever since by these butterflies particularly as they affect school improvement and teaching. Ideally and most appealingly they should be interventions which require low effort but have high impact.
So a 'butterfly' would be rotating staff meetings in a primary school round classrooms so the host can start the meeting with a set of reflections on the best things and the points for development in their classroom organisation. Later the same school might rotate a staff agenda item among staff so that they take it in turns to review the use of some new piece of children's literature in their teaching and how it might work with a different age group.
Yet another possibility is to have an item where a pupil's piece of work has been marked by three different teachers not from their own school so there can be debate about marking and assessment, so often the Achilles heel of school practice.
In the same vein, I was fascinated to visit a London academy that had adopted the simple but powerful practice of interspersing students' workbooks with blue and green stickers, the former for the student to reflect on a couple of strengths of the work they have just completed and one point for development while the latter green stickers act as prompts for the teachers response. It seemed a simple but effective way to embed some aspects of formative assessment and take some of the heat out of marking.
Ideally 'butterflies' have most impact when they reinforce any of the following comments from Judith Little who said you know you are in an outstanding school where you can see that:
• Teachers talk about teaching.
• Teachers observe each other's teaching.
• Teachers plan, organise and evaluate their work together.
• Teachers teach each other.
So butterflies that affect the likelihood of that happening can powerfully improve the whole school effect, and I still collect them avidly. But not as avidly as some. There's a head in Surrey, Ani Magill, who is such a lepidopterist that she has found 365 briefly stated ideas to try in schools.
After all there are so many things that require enormous effort in schools – sometimes it has to be said without any huge result - that it is refreshing to find something simple that helps.
• Do you have a tip or butterfly about teaching or school improvement to share? If so, post your advice in the comments. We want to create an ideas bank of tips for schools and teachers.
Sir Tim Brighouse ran the London Challenge as chief commissioner for schools.