Adventures in Instruction

Did Austin Actually Learn Anything from his Butterfly?


I think I first came across Berger’s “Austin’s Butterfly” in this blog post by Tom Sherrington. In the years since I have read Berger’s An Ethic of Excellence for myself and seen it referenced by multiple influential bloggers (e.g. here, here and here), shared by speakers at conference and CPD events and even used the reference myself in various training context; but is this really the model for powerful feedback that it is so often used to represent?

For the uninitiated, Austin’s butterfly is a demonstration by Ron Berger as to how peer critique in the form of specific and frequent feedback can have a profound impact on the work of a student. If you have a moment, take a look at the video below in which Ron explains how this process supported Austin in creating his scientific drawing.

So what’s not to like?

Today I was lucky enough to be an audience to David Didau once more, this time in discussion of Feedback. During this session, David shared his feedback continuum, which, despite having seen him present the idea before had not resonated fully with me until today: that although immediate, granular, specific feedback has an inarguable effect on performance, it likely has little effect (or worse a negative effect) on long-term learning…

As Soderstrom and Bjork point out, there is empirical evidence that “delaying, reducing, and summarizing feedback can be better for long-term learning than providing immediate, trial-by-trial feedback.” Further, they point out that, “Numerous studies—some of them dating back decades—have shown that frequent and immediate feedback can, contrary to intuition, degrade learning.”
(from David Didau:

But, hold on… does this not directly contradict the style of feedback advocated by Berger, so…

Is Austin’s butterfly simply a story of improved performance rather than learning?

Fortunately, I had the opportunity to discuss this question with David directly and he too seemed to be of the opinion that, yes, that is the case. Although Austin may eventually be able to create a masterpiece as every micro-feature of his performance is subject to directed tweaks, this may simply leave him more reliant on this coaxing and goading towards any future projects.

It stands that Austin may have learned very little about scientific drawing; at least nothing that could be flexible enough for anything but very close transfer (another kind of butterfly?)


Are there any arguments for using Berger’s approach to feedback?

Maybe. Here are a couple of possibilities…

  1. To teach reflective practice.  To be fair, I believe this argument is a strong component of what Berger was trying to achieve. Students will rarely gain much at all by teachers proof-reading their work, but it takes practice for students to accomplish this by themselves. Of course, students are limited by their own existing knowledge and will, therefore, only be able to identify mistakes (slip-ups) rather than errors (misconceptions) in their own work; but, by modelling what this process looks like it could support learners in developing this habit.
  2. To create a culture of success. Past/current achievement predicts future motivation. Through the creation of a truly impressive work with a careful investment of time and effort, it is possible that students will generate the necessary intrinsic motivation to be more resilient to future challenges.
  3. To set a personal standard. We, like many schools, use a transition activity with the hope of preventing a dip or lull in student progress between KS2 and KS3. This involves year 6 students creating their ‘best’ piece of creative writing; including all of the expected care taken in presentation, language and structure; which is then stuck into the front of their new year 7 exercise books as a point of comparison for future work. The idea is that if at any point, the teacher, or ideally the student themselves, see a fall in standards, this can be addressed, usually with minimal feedback required since the shortcomings are evident.

All of the above still suggest that this isn’t a mode of feedback which should be regularly employed, but for the occasional ‘project’ it could be beneficial.

Please do comment below if you have any thoughts. Is it time to put the butterfly to bed?