The butterfly effect in schools: sharing simple ideas can have a big impact

Writing in the Guardian, Tim Brighouse talks about his career-long love for education tips and encourages schools to share more of their simple but powerful good ideas. This is an extract…

…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…

Sir Tim Brighouse ran the London Challenge as chief commissioner for schools.

More at:  The butterfly effect in schools: sharing simple ideas can have a big impact

Picking upon Sir Tim’s theme, what are your favourite school improvement and teaching tips that you would like to share with our readers?

'Watching the girls develop in confidence is amazing'
Faith schools ‘favour better-off parents who can plan ahead’
Categories: Teaching.


  1. michellelewis35

    TeachArtDesign We have just started but would be happy to chat – will DM you my contact details if you want to blether 🙂

Let us know what you think...