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:  http://www.learningspy.co.uk/assessment/improving-peer-feedback-with-public-critique/)

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?

11 thoughts on “Did Austin Actually Learn Anything from his Butterfly?

  1. Austin was in first grade (Year 2). Perhaps the way in which children can use feedback and improve their learning differs relative to their age and stage. I wonder whether when David Didau is quoting Bjork he is thinking of how it rings true in a secondary context, when delaying and deferring feedback may well demonstrate longer term learning gains. Come and try a bit of that in Year 2.
    Perhaps in KS1, what matters most is to help children see the value in getting better at something rather than trying to get things right first time. Many EYFS and KS1 children will often try to complete a task as quickly as possible, perhaps hoping for praise for completing their task without much regard for quality. I think Ron Berger was trying to develop in children of that sort of age more of a feedback mindset that a task completion mindset. Which I link to Dylan Wiliam’s point about improving the learner.
    The important thing wasn’t so much that Austin ended up drawing a better butterfly, it was that Austin started to realise that by seeking and acting on feedback he could surpass his own expectations. As a lovely Y1 girl said to me the other day “I didn’t know I could do that.”


    1. I think you may be absolutely right. I began to outline in a less eloquent fashion in the tail-end of the post. We know that success breeds future motivation, and having both the self-image as someone who can and has achieved, and the experience of witnessing how protracted effort and refinement leads to quality is likely valuable. The only thing I would continue to wonder the question I pose in the title of the post; is it a method which has any viability to teaching the matter at hand?

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  2. As an art teacher myself I’d say yes and no. It’s good to have peer support and input but you’re right. Too much immediate feedback of this type is often demoralising especially as we age.
    One of the beautiful things about Austin’s video is the age of the children. We often become much more self critical and unconfident as we get older. Pupils think there is a ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ way which may be true in many areas but rarely in art. Constantly picking areas for improvement isn’t helpful. In art we often are trying to build confidence and so it is sometimes beneficial to let minor errors go in the short term in order to build long term gains. If Austin liked drawing his butterfly he’ll want to do it again and again (and so improve). If he is sick of people finding fault with it he’ll give up.

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  3. I think there’s a danger of losing perspective here. Isn’t it obvious that Austin is better off having been guided through this process than, say, having had his first effort accepted. Obviously he would now need to consolidate the heavily guided practice with independence practice for any significant long term learning about ‘looking like a scientist’. Berger’s idea that a taste of excellence is powerful as a motivator and guide to standards has merit so, early on, an Austin’s butterfly experience is probably helpful rather than serial mediocrity. So, I think, yes, Austin will have learned something. He will have been changed – assuming the teacher followed up in sensible ways.

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  4. I love this particular metamorphosis and, along with Berger’s book, it has encouraged and dare I say it, inspired me to teach better, hold higher expectations and cultivate a better culture of redrafting in lessons. Learning is multifaceted, and to denounce this piece seems to me to be unnecessarily structuralist . I’m keeping this little boy and his butterflies!


  5. I think there’s a place for different forms of feedback and it’s down to the teacher to make judgments of what approach to best use.
    I am a secondary English teacher, I often use this approach when teaching technical writing skills, but it has to be judge carefully and paired with engendering a love of the creative. As a previous poster alluded to, it has to be followed up with methods and strategies which enable the student to achieve similar results independently.
    But this is the point of professional and experiences teachers, we understand that students perform on a continuum (a ZPD if you will) , that scaffolding will help a child to
    Do something they couldn’t achieve alone.


    1. I think that is a very fair summary. David Didau makes this point exceptionally well here: http://www.learningspy.co.uk/learning/the-feedback-continuum/

      What I was keen to present however is a direct critique of Austin’s butterfly as it is most often presented (in my experience) as a form of feedback leading to learning, as opposed to one used to encode success at an early stage (which is far more defensible.)


  6. After having been introduced to the Austin butterfly video, our 1st grade teacher used the activity at school. We passed out beautiful post cards of birds and bird beaks. The children worked in pairs and the improvement seen from draft 1 to 2 to 3 were tangible and well received. By focusing on the feedback and making improvements with each draft, our students learned to give and receive feedback. They learned perseverance. They learned they could draw even better then they knew they could. It was a confidence builder and an enjoyable experience of 1 to 1 teamwork. Our students enjoyed it a lot and have requested to see the video a few times since, so I will guess that Austin, too, learned plenty!


    1. I’m glad you’ve been able to make good use of the video and it was a valuable experience. I don’t mean to diminish the importance of these successes when I echo the title of the blog in asking ‘…but did he learn anything about scientific drawing?’ (the objective of the lesson).


  7. Do we need to clarify the purpose of the Austin case more specifically and what we feel is meant by ‘learning’ in order to consider whether the feedback is relevant and effective? Learning to ‘draw scientifically’ is perhaps one aim of the Austin case, were there many other things being learned?


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