Austin’s butterfly and developing self-motivation

“Made it, ma. Top of the world.”

(James Cagney, White Heat)

There are few better experiences than the feeling of absolute satisfaction when a lesson goes exactly the way you had planned: your explanations are clear; the pupils engage enthusiastically with the tasks; everything sequences together. Learning is palpable and the lesson flies by (the ultimate compliment is when the children are surprised that the lesson is coming to an end).

The only thing better is if the lesson is being observed as part of your PMR.

Earlier last week, to coincide with the Manchester parade for Britain’s Olympic and Paralympic athletes, there was a discussion on Radio 5 live about what it took to become a champion. It all came back to self-motivation and resilience: without these pillars/foundations (pick your metaphor), everything else collapsed. The athletes spoke about the frustration of injuries, plateaus and inconsistencies in performance; all of them admitted to times when they felt like quitting and all of them praised their support networks (coaches, friends and families). The core message was it was hard, unstinting work and sometimes it was only their stubbornness which stopped them quitting. It reminded me of something Muhammad Ali once said: I hated every minute of training, but I said, ‘Don’t quit. Suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion.’ It’s an important message that all of us- pupils and staff- need to keep close to heart.

Many of you will be familiar with the work of Ron Berger and Austin’s butterfly:

It’s pretty inspirational stuff and is a powerful visual reminder that, contrary to the deeply-ingrained beliefs of many people that we are either good at something or not, we can get better with practice, self-motivation and perseverance. More importantly, the compelling argument is that once a pupil has experienced the satisfaction and pride of achieving at such a high level, he or she will never be satisfied with anything less. Even my sceptical Year 11s were impressed by the quality of Austin’s final draft.

It’s a lesson we can all benefit from, not just the children.

I have been engaging in deep learning with my classes in an attempt to boost their confidence and, therefore, their self-motivation. The increasingly content-heavy nature of GCSE seems to encourage a mad rush through the curriculum and it’s important to take the time to embed key concepts. It’s not easy- our natural inclination is to spoon-feed because the extrinsic threats (pressure of exams) can loom larger than the intrinsic beliefs (developing independence). But all of the most inspiring lessons I have ever had the privilege to watch have had independence at their very heart. Those are the lessons when you walk out thinking I have to recreate this somehow when I next teach. It’s one of the (many) best parts of my job.

This week we have been reading Act 4 Scene 1 and exploring how Macbeth’s character continues to change. It’s a great scene, beginning with a powerful images of witches brewing up a foul concoction (‘Eye of newt and toe of frog/ Wool of bat and tongue of dog.’) and concluding with a clear indication that Macbeth is no longer troubled by self-doubt or guilt (‘No boasting like a fool/ This deed I’ll do before this purpose cool.’). We’ve had some interesting discussions but the proof of the pudding, as always, is the quality of the analytical work. This is where Austin’s butterfly has provided the clear, visual motivational tool I was looking for. Focussing on a small extract of text, the pupils produced a draft piece of writing analysing the ways in which Macbeth is presented as being more ruthless. Then, using pupil-friendly marking criteria, they worked in pairs and small groups to give each other specific guidance on how to improve before redrafting. Lather, rinse, repeat: a third draft was produced.

There were a couple of speed bumps (one of the girls told me it was becoming tedious) and it’s at these times that your relationships are tested- the pupils have to believe that you know what you are doing and have to buy in to the importance of it. They also need to know that they won’t be doing this every time they start a piece of writing. But the outcomes far outweighed these minor hiccups. Most, if not all, made significant progress, moving from rushed observations about the text to carefully-considered analysis of the language and imagery used by Macbeth. The looks of pride and satisfaction on some of their faces was the highlight of last half-term and was a perfectly-timed (if unintentional) conclusion to a long and busy half-term.

If Carling made last lessons on Fridays . . .

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