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What should we DO about numbers and judgements?

I often ask little people, “How old are you?” and they nearly always get it right, saying “I’m four!” often adding “and three quarters…” Then I add, “Four what?” Most are completely stuck. Cue laughter at the innocence of children, “Tee hee, they know they are four but not what it means!” I’ll often ask older students, “What are you learning today?” and I get great answers, the best ever was, “Well… we know what we are doing… but we don’t know what we are learning….” That caused great hilarity and much rethinking in a CPD session. Then I ask, “What level are you?” and many students reply confidently, “Level Five” or they’ll give me another number. Then I ask that second question again, “5 what? What does that 5 mean?” and many have little, or no idea. I know I can be mischievous and I don’t mean to be but it’s the killer question that gets them almost every time. And because I just hate smart arses who ask questions without being able to answer it themselves, I invented a little system, a deceptively simple tool to help answer that second question and then pose a third and fourth question that I haven’t even come to yet’…

The Self-Evaluation Tool….

The tool? Well, originally, I called it an abacus because that’s what it was, my grown up children’s old wooden abacus. I took nine beads off each wire…but more about that later. Let’s go back to the confusion about what numbers mean because I heard you thinking that some students can answer that question, about the meaning of 5, with more detail like, “It means I’m doing very well….it means I’m clever”, or, for some, “I’m not very good at all.” There is even a student somewhere who will answer, “It means I’m performing above the expected level for a student of my age”. He, or she, will probably be absolutely fine, for a while and then become an Ofsted inspector, or Secretary of State…

Number blindness in self evaluation

Let’s just face it, head on…. we all know it’s not just children who suffer from number blindness… Ask almost anyone how well they are doing and they are likely to attach a number, “We are a Five Star establishment…. I got a 2:1… I always travel 1st Class, She got A stars in all her examinations… I know, I slipped a letter in there but it’s the same issue. We even do it with colours and metals… “ I’m a gold medal winner!” And for everyone at the successful end of the number, letter, colour or metal continuum, there are a balancing group, teetering, or tittering, at the other end. “I’m a D… I came fourth……” We also use word labels to substitute for numbers, or letters. “He is outstanding… She is good… they were satisfactory. And there is a lot of confusion around judgements like this. One man, who should know better, inserted a prescription instead of a judgements when substituting Satisfactory for Requires Improvement in the Ofsted descriptors.

Blind alleys in self evaluation

My experience is that too few of us, and yes I include myself here, are able to articulate what that “level” really means, whether it be a number, a colour, or a metal. My fear is that we are just not precise enough at measuring performance, in learning, loving, living, business, fitness and all those experiences that make up the threads in our rich tapestry. Worse still we make huge, dangerous comparisons. We, rightly in my view, see Roger Bannister, the first sub 4 minute miler, as an athletic hero, whilst we accpet he would have failed to get into the 2012 GB Olympic team. At the same time, many don’t believe students of 2012 are outperforming those from 1950s.

I am resisting the temptation to mention normal curves of distribution here, or ask for the name the Secretary of State for Education who wanted 80% of students to be above average…

The Abacus at simplest

So, the germs of a process was forming. My first little wooden abacus helped others make that initial judgement more precisely. I just showed them one bead on one wire and said, “The left end is the worst possible and the right hand end the best possible.” Crucially, there were no numbers, or words on the line. I then said,”Slide the bead to where you think you are” and they could all do it pretty quickly. We could have spent time giving the bead position a number, or a colour, or even a name but quite frankly I have always thought that a distraction. I want to get to action!

For some, the number, the letter, the label seems to be sufficient – the last line of the poem. This is dangerous and complacent thinking. Inertia beckons. So, my next questions are just polite ways of saying, “So what?” I ask something like, “Where do you want to be?” and “How will you get there?” and “How will you know you’ve got there” and “If the wire was longer what would the next section be like?” or “What is your real potential?”

So, I designed a simple set of activities to go alongside the bead sliding on that firsty wooden abacus. The activities help find out what the numbers and labels mean by adding criteria. More important acitvities help identify forces holding you back and propelling you forward. This led to action planning activities to move up the numbers (or down the numbers) and into better labels. So, whilst it all started off as a bead sliding along a wire, it became a full analysis and planning process.

Then the really hard work began (cue violins) and eventually, with great technical help from my friend Dan, it became a sophisticated piece of self-evaluation and planning software. The iAbacus. I promise you you’ll love playing with it. You’ll enjoy sliding those beads around and making plans. You’ll be stumped by those second and third questions but don’t worry, we plan that the iAbacus community will steer you through finding those elusive strategies.

I promise, if you persevere, you’ll feel really good about yourself and then, maybe a few more of us will talk about the actions we are taking to make the world a better place, rather than remaining inert by numbering, or labelling descriptions of how bad it is now.

John Updated from his BLOG post 2011


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