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Juggling Butterflies

In their book How to Improve your School, Tim Brighouse and David Wood describe small but effective interventions for school improvement as ‘butterflies’:

‘Butterflies are best described in the impact they have on the everyday life of the school and the process of school improvement.  […] The best butterflies will affect the most processes and make an immediate and disproportionate difference to the climate and culture of the school.’

The AHDS Annual Conference in November 2015, helped me discover a butterfly based on juggling, which drew upon some of the ideas we heard about at the conference.  Some of the key moments from the day, contributing to the butterfly, were:

·         The captivating Sir John Jones weaving some magic by sharing his passion and knowledge, saying ‘Don’t take yourself too seriously’ and encouraging leaders to remain enthralled in learning. (I had never seen a standing ovation at a conference before this!).

·         Graeme Logan highlighting the excellent Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) website.  Their toolkit provides information on the most influential learning and teaching strategies  to help close the gap such as: effective feedback, peer learning, metacognition and self-regulation.

·         An inspiring video about a colleague personally demonstrating a growth mindset through learning to juggle at school.

·         A video (which can be found on YouTube) called ‘Austin’s Butterfly’, demonstrating the power of effective peer feedback combined with a growth mindset.  (I used this in a whole school assembly and our children gave Austin a standing ovation too!)

Having just taken up my second Depute Head position in August 2015, some of my aims during the first months in post were to build relationships, get to know the school and make best use of any small interactions with pupils and staff, which I hoped would help create trust and rapport.  The conference stimulated ideas and I began to consider how I could use them in this new context.  I wanted to do something manageable, that would create opportunities for interaction and conversation, but which would also support an emerging focus in our school on the value of children building resilience through a growth mindset and viewing mistakes as opportunities to learn.

Initially, we had several growth mindset themed assemblies, watched ‘Austin’s Butterfly’ and looked at ‘famous failures’. The children engaged in ‘think, pair and share’ discussions, considering their targets and next steps in learning.  It was eye opening to realise how many believed they were ‘just not good’ at certain things, and great to see their understanding developing as they considered the importance of the time and effort involved in skills mastery.  This all complimented work being undertaken in more depth in class by teaching staff. 

I wanted the children to see that we are all, adults and children alike, learners: I explained that I would set myself a learning target too.  So, perhaps as many colleagues have done before me, I set myself a juggle challenge.  I demonstrated how truly awful I was at juggling (to much hilarity), which seemed to really help with engagement. I explained that I doubted whether I could achieve my target, as my throwing and catching skills were, shall we say, basic, but gave myself plenty of time to reach my target: 4 months to be able to juggle 3 balls with ease.  I made a commitment to a growth mind-set and in believing that I could do it eventually.

It turned out that my mindset would be tested, but I was regularly reminded by children, colleagues and family of the mindset I was supposed to be modelling to others - growth, not ‘fixed’.  February came and went without me achieving my target.  The children and I had an honest chat at assembly, where the children said they hadn’t seen me practising enough lately -which was true - and that I ‘couldn’t just expect to become an expert without putting the effort in’.  I increased the practice by a few more minutes by trying to fit it in around my school day: at dinner duty, during playground supervision, and at the doors as I welcomed them in. 

I have now graduated from one bean bag to nearly three balls.  Unexpectedly, my failure to reach my target (as of yet) has been a positive!  The journey has become far more rewarding and important than me becoming a champion juggler.  Despite (or perhaps because of) my slow progress, my hopes for this little ‘butterfly’ have been exceeded.  It turns out that such a visible and very slow learning journey has provided so many opportunities for rich learning conversations outwith class time and in the broader context of the curriculum. 

As my lack of progress appears to be amusing, many children have engaged in the ‘fun’ - and they want me to achieve my target! I have positive conversations on a daily basis with children in passing as they assess my progress, offer some critical analysis and consider how I might break down the steps further to help me on my way. They have researched tips on the internet, asked relatives for advice and some have taken up the challenge themselves to provide some moral support: they even sing ‘never, never give up’ (to the tune of the Batman theme) unprompted, as they pick up a dropped ball for me.  We have engaged in natural peer learning and recently discovered one of our support assistants can already juggle with three balls.  She has given us some demonstrations and tips at break time – more peer learning!

I am not in a huge hurry to reach my original target, as it turns out the journey is a lot of fun and rich with potential.  It’s not about the juggling either – I could be learning any number of new (preferably visible) skills and the juggling has just become a means to an end.  They know what my target is and what my next steps are, in the same way as I ask them theirs.  They know that learning something new is hard work and it takes a lot of practice and perseverance sometimes. They know that learning involves ‘failures’, but that that these setbacks are part of the leaning process - they see me trying to manage my own setbacks and my slow progress.  All wrapped up in this little ‘butterfly’ we have explored the ideas of feedback, peer learning, metacognition and self-regulation. I’ve had a chance to meet and interact with the children and staff in my school in a fun way, building some of the trust and rapport I had hoped for.

Since taking up a leadership role, the day-to-day demands of school life seam to leave only a few precious opportunities to have an influence on learning and teaching through working directly with the children. This refreshing and enjoyable journey has given me the chance to have multiple, learning focused conversations on a daily basis and has positively influenced some of the factors we know can make a significant impact on attainment. 

I think one of the main points I took away from Tim Brighouse and David Wood’s book was that school improvement can be in the sum of all of the small ‘butterflies’ that we and others create in order to have a positive impact on our school and our children.  That’s an empowering idea I think - I was glad to be reminded of this through my little juggling foray.  Perhaps at some point I need to find a juggling teacher, do some more practice, and everything will click and I will achieve my target? Now wouldn’t that be a good ending to the story for the children.  Whole staff hoola-hooping team next?  Who knows!




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