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The iAbacus – trains and beads and plans

Written in response to the comment, “Explain the iAbacus to me simply and don’t use jargon!”

Once upon a time…

When I was little, I loved pushing a toy train, making those “chuff-chuff too-toot” noises. I was in that train embarking on some epic journey.

Later, I became fascinated by how writing left to right develops a story and saw handwriting as a kind of wriggly footpath. Tracing my finger along maps still gives me a buzz. Maybe it’s because I’m left handed, or left brained but left to right movement is somehow…. right. As a teacher, I would draw lines on the black-board, or move a bead along a wire, or piece of string to show progress. Like the red in a thermometer expands, or a speedometer swings, the visual representation makes a concept come alive. I often write about life as a journey and even called my poetry book “Desire Lines”.

The abacus process started as a light bulb moment in a Special Measures school in 2004. They were struggling to make sense of the mountains of data and the complicated weave and weft of various planning formats and designs imposed on them. Searching for simplicity and thinking of that left to right movement, I grabbed a child’s abacus and got them sliding beads to, “Where they thought they were now” on a scale from inadequate to outstanding. They moved a bead for “overall” then “achievement” and “welfare”. They found it easy. Why? Because they had nous i.e. context, knowledge and practical intelligence about their school. Then, when I asked for evidence to support their judgement it poured out. They were now released from the clutch of evidence to an analysis what to do next…. So, I designed an “abacus process”” to free up creative thinking about school improvement. For me that’s leaders, teachers and students thinking about how to achieve. It’s about each of us really understanding where we are now and what we are doing now in order to make progress. It’s also about building capacity so all can say, “looking at what we do with a view to doing it better is part of our work”. Of course, the plans, reports, paper and software programs are important but they can only describe what was achieved in the past and what we hope to achieve in the future. The heart of school improvement is knowing why, how and what we are doing right NOW. The abacus process seeks to capture this, crucial, present tense of improvement. Sliding an abacus bead helps people talk about circumstance and actions to make things better. And this precious present is obvious when it’s happening. You can see the “now” of school improvement in classrooms and staffrooms. It comes alive in what people are saying and doing. What they did and what they are planning to do next is relevant but what they are doing NOW is vital.

So, the iAbacus started life as….er…. an ABACUS…

In 2004 it looked like this:

By 2007 it was being used like this:

That bit on the left has a list of things she’s working on – she’s not doing very well on Number 5…yet.

At this stage I was using an array of arty Abacuses. It was working well and I slid my personal bead to GOOD. I used it when I was coaching, training and consulting. Folks liked it and it was, by far, THE most popular tool in all my evaluations for several years.

In 2010, I met “Dan The Software Man” via twitter, and we started with an idea of using 21st Century Technology to make the process slick and easy. By the end of 2011 we had a really good version, slip sliding away on screen.

Start simple

I have a saying, “Start simple, it will get complicated anyway, start complicated and you don’t stand a chance” So, the difficult work began when we took out all the unnecessary bits. It was tough but software abacus became simpler to use and better to understand, less wordy and more brainy and by 2012 it was working just how we thought it might. And then… something wonderful happened. Using the software version we found it could do things we had never even dreamed of…

We could allow several people – as collaborators – to add comments and ideas onto a single abacus . We could attach files, pictures and weblinks, even those dense (do I mean detailed?) reports inspectors and quality controllers had written. We could slot in coloured pictures of the array of beads and produce comprehensive and detailed reports. And the whole process could be completed on screen, we didn’t have to print one piece of paper. We emailed reports to each other. Another maxim for much of my work is, “If I had more time I would have written a shorter report/plan/letter” to which I now add, “Print less well, rather than more badly”. But if users do want to print a summary report when all work is done and things are better – they just click the print button.

In 2013 the iAbacus looks like this..

(We called it iAbacus to link 21st Century Internet technology with the oldest computer in the world)

Dream first and then write lists

The thing I am most proud of is that the iAbacus still begins with sliding that bead – from left to right – the genesis of the idea. I don’t want to be negative but so many School Improvement systems START with the evidence, data and information – the boring but important stuff that can bury us to the depth of meaningless: avalanches of assessment; tsunamis of statistics; landslides of league tables.

I have always begun the school improvement journey with a dream about what could be achieved and setting the compass bearing accordingly. In my experience that gets the motivation going and motive is the precursor to motion. Describing where we used to be, writing up lists, working out speeds and fuel consumptions are all very important but they are a waste of valuable time until you know, precisely, where you’re going.

“Chuff- chuff – toot toot! John Pearce Updated 28.1.13


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