‘The Butterfly Effect’ in Schools

'The Book of Life' by David Kracov (see here: http://www.davidkracov.com/special-projects/77-special-project-1.html)
‘The Book of Life’ by David Kracov (see here: http://www.davidkracov.com/special-projects/77-special-project-1.html)


“If a single flap of a butterfly’s wing can be instrumental in generating a tornado, so can all the previous and subsequent flaps of its wings, as can the flaps of the wings of millions of other butterflies, not to mention the activities of innumerable more powerful creatures, including our own species.”

Edward Lorenz, ‘Predictability: Does the Flap of a Butterfly’s Wing in Brazil Set Off a Tornado in Texas?’


The genius concept of ‘the butterfly effect’ has long since flourished in popular culture since Professor Lorenz, of MIT, founded this central tenet of chaos theory. The beautiful image provides a striking analogy for how small actions can have tremendously powerful effects – often independent of the intent of the initial action. The theory can inspire different interpretations. A negative perspective can interpret that such a theory represents the unknowable chaos of daily experience. Teaching feels a lot like that sometimes! It can also initiate a positive perspective that interprets it as showing how seemingly insignificant individuals can undertake small actions and make a big difference. Teaching feels like that sometimes too!

It was the butterfly image which united two brilliant ideas for improving schools, alongside teaching and learning, from two heavyweights of education: Ron Berger and Sir Tim Brighouse. Tom Sherrington’s always outstanding blog came up trumps yet again last week with his short post on ‘Austin’s Butterfly’. This is an exemplar of an American student whom Berger uses as an example of his approach to learning. Please take the time to read Tom’s post on “Austin’s Butterflyhere. You simply must take the time to watch the video too:


‘Austin’s Butterfly’ is a celebration of one student’s progress, but it is an apt example of the power of ‘critique‘ and well supported feedback, from both peers and the teacher. It also celebrates how a culture of high expectations and crafting and drafting can have a transformative effect on learning. This particular butterfly represents students having a mindset rooted in effort, perseverance and a commitment to deliberate practice. OFSTED, might call it a “thirst for knowledge“, Carol Dweck a ‘Growth Mindset’, Angela Duckworth – ‘GRIT’ – or more flatly – a commitment to hard work!

Tom’s great post lodged butterflies in my mind and then my memory raked at another great ‘butterfly in education’ analogy I had read. It was this Guardian article by the brilliant Sir Tim Brighouse – see here. Sir Tim’s post is faithful to the chaos theory example of the ‘butterfly effect’. The article outlines that his ‘butterflies’ are small tips for teaching better. Frustrated by theory-laden teacher training, he began gathering such ‘butterflies’ in a practical attempt to survive and thrive in teaching. With confidence and expertise, he began to share those same ‘butterflies’. He has been a master lepidopterist –  butterfly expert – ever since (not literally, although I’m not certain of that!).

Of course, to take the metaphor further a little, such ‘butterflies‘ need the right conditions to thrive. ‘Austin’s Butterfly’ emerged through painstaking effort, perseverance and high quality feedback. Sir Tim’s ‘butterflies‘ requires the fertile conditions of teachers openly talking about teaching, sharing their expertise, even observing one another teach and, once more, sharing high quality feedback. Learning, for both teachers and our students, can feel a lot like chaos theory! We can only but provide the conditions.

Such butterfly analogies are beguiling. There is a simple beauty about these creatures and there is something potent about the message that small changes can make a significant difference to a school organisation. There is something wholly democratic about the idea.

Perhaps it is not sweeping changes from the top that make for real, lasting change at all. Perhaps one hundred per cent improvement is the result of one hundred small butterflies of change? Improvements such as the small details of teacher practice, like high quality feedback strategies, that collectively are making big changes in a school.

If you narrow this down to one student and ensure that their experience is rooted in the high expectations and feedback that Austin underwent in producing the butterfly, in every subject area – in every lesson – then the ultimate impact would surely be transformative. A breath of a butterfly wing metamorphosing into a whirlwind.

With the complexity of a school environment, teeming with diversity and life, like a veritable rainforest, it is likely you cannot guide the butterflies in any direction. People in schools: teachers and students, are maddeningly similar. Flying in formation never really occurs as we intend it to, no matter how rigid the top-down leadership. We can but develop and maintain the conditions for our particular ‘butterflies‘ to thrive. This will likely happen from the bottom up – like those small but powerful butterfly wings freely beating their haphazard, seemingly chaotic pattern.

Like Ron Berger, we can create an ‘ethic of excellence’ through a rigorous and creative culture of drafting and skilled feedback.

Like Sir Tim Brighouse, we can ensure that ‘butterflies’ of teaching ideas can be shared in the daily life of schools, encouraged by creating school structures and time that actively facilitate such sharing.


I will end with some questions these butterfly analogies sparked for me:

What are the ‘butterflies’ in my school and in my classroom?

What conditions do I need to create for ‘butterflies’ to flourish?

What classrooms and teachers provide the most fertile conditions for learning? Can we shine a light of those teachers and share their ‘butterflies’?


Thank you to Ron Berger, Sir Tim Brighouse and Tom Sherrington for the inspiration for this post.

I have written about Ron Berger’s outstanding book, ‘The Ethic of Excellence’ here. Buy it, read it and share it.

Sir Tim Brighouse has his brilliant work floating like a butterfly of school improvement on the web. See his ‘Jigsaw for School Improvement’ here and his guidance for Head teachers here.

I have written about feedback and critique here and my feedback posts, both written and oral, are compiled here.

10 thoughts on “‘The Butterfly Effect’ in Schools”

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  6. Sylvia Thomas

    I see this reflected in the approach taken by Dave Brailsford in driving the GB cycling team to great success and the notion of tweak to transform, a phrase used by Jim Collins. This is the approach we have taken to drive ourselves out of special measures. I like the image of butterflies – thank you for sharing this

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