Wednesday 19 December 2012

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 always gives me a buzz.   Maybe it's because I'm left handed, or left brained but left to right movement is somehow.... right.  I even called my poetry book "Desire Lines".  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 speedometer pointers move, the visual representation made it real.    Once, as an adviser I used an old nursery Abacus as a tool, when I was urging colleagues to move on rather than sit there, describing inertia.  So, the "ABACUS approach" became three questions:  Where are you are now? Where you could be? and How you might get there?  Sliding an Abacus bead helps people talk about circumstance and actions to make things  better. There are are about five stages in the process:

Stage 1: Slide the bead, from left to right to describe how you are feeling.  Choose your own topic and labels.  Examples, far left to far right, include:  AWFUL to BRILLIANT; OBESE to FIT; BANKRUPT to MILLIONAIRE and even DEPRESSIVE to CONFIDENT. You can keep two labels, or add others in between. You could insert UNDERWEIGHT and OK between OBESE to FIT  for example.

Stage 2:  Describe each of your labels in more detail.  UNDERWEIGHT would be 140lbs (for me) and I'd show a holiday picture of you when I was a 10 stone weakling.  In the FIT description you'd list a few things you want to be able to do like swim a mile, climb a tree, or run upstairs. Or how you'd look.  You might have a photo of a film star but we have to be realistic... 

Stage 3: Now you have to prove why you have left the bead where it is by providing information, facts, pictures, or something that shows you are right. So, if you are 20 stone you cannot, honestly, leave the bead on UNDERWEIGHT. Conversely, if your rings fall off your skinny fingers, or your best jeans fall down when your belt is on its last hole you can't claim to be OK.

Stage 4: Is about finding what makes things better, or holds you back from moving to the right.  If you want to be FIT you could say, "Eating fewer pies will help, or not going to the pub".  Someone who is UNDERWEIGHT might say, "Eating more pies." because we are all  different.

Stage 5: Write down what you are going to do, by when and how it will look when it's done.  Eating less and exercising is  vague so detail is important. Putting a lock on the fridge and giving the key to your mate might work.  Hanging up a new jumper that will fit, when you get to the weight is helpful, or a pie chart to tick the right number of pies for each week.  Stage 5 is about DOING something that will make a difference.

Stage 6 is really the second Stage 1 because you go back to the start, by asking yourself, as you look in the mirror, "How do I feel and look now?" Of course, you have those pictures to compare and you should be feeling better if you have done what you prepared in earlier stages.  Now, slide that bead a little closer to where you want it to be, a simple and powerful demonstration of movement.  Stage 6  should include a party with no pies, or lots of pies to celebrate.

So, the  iAbacus started life 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.

At this stage I was using an array of arty Abacuses.  It was working really well and I slid my bead to HAPPY.  I used it when I was coaching, training and consulting.  Folks liked it and it was THE most popular tool in all my evaluations by far but there were loads of forms and guides and lists and data alongside it.

In 2010,  I met "Dan The Software Man" and we started with an idea of using 21st Century Technology to make it slick and easy.  By the end of 2011 we thought 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!"   We had listened to inspectors, quality control freaks and gurus and just loaded all their lists, forms and tick boxes into our computer because you can do that - they eat up that kind of stuff.  

Our really difficult work began when we decided to take out all the unnecessary bits.  It was tough but the eAbacus, as we called it, 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 it 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 and pictures (of film stars and pie charts) and even all those dense (do I mean detailed?) reports the inspectors and quality controllers had written could be appended.  Then we found we could put all the little bits of information from the 5 Stage sequence in order and slot in coloured pictures of the beads in one place and produce comprehensive and detailed reports.  These are even better than those the quality controllers, the consultants and inspectors produce.  And the whole process is done on screen, we don't have to print one piece of paper, at any point in the process.  We  just email reports to each other.  Our maxim is "Print less well, rather than more badly" so, if you do want to print one copy of your final report when all your work is done and things are better - just click the print button.  

In 2013 the iAbacus looks like this..

 ( iAbacus links 21st Century internet Technology with the oldest computing machine in the world)


Dream first and then write lists 

The thing I am most proud of is that the  iAbacus still starts with sliding that bead - from left to right - the genesis of the idea.  I don't want to be negative but so many systems  START with evidence, data and information - the boring but important stuff that buries us to the depth of meaningless.  It has always seemed  far better to start by dreaming about what could be and setting the compass first.  Writing lists, working out average speeds, fuel consumption and cost per mile can come later.  And they are far more interesting when you know where you are going.

"Chuff-chuff, toot toot!"

The end

Sunday 24 June 2012

The Animal Education System

In 1986 I found an old version of  "Animal School" by Dr G Reavis, (Director of Cincinnati Schools 1939-48) I just had to update it.  My first update was in 1987, my next was in 2002 – I thought it was due another ....

Once upon a time, the new political animals decided they must do something heroic about the state of the younger animals who were unoccupied, showing signs of discontent, hindering the productive lives of their parents and generally hanging around in field corners.  They were just not progressing!  Furthermore, some of the far-seeing animal politicians saw a new world fast approaching. So they organised an Academy.

First, they had to design a curriculum so they took advice from the brightest and best by forming a committee.  This comprised a cheetah, a monkey, a shark and a swallow, all experts at what they were expert at. This curriculum committee booked a hotel, worked very hard, drank some wine and finally made its recommendations.  The politicians accepted the committee's arguments, so ably put with the use of presentations, slide displays and models of real animals.  The cheetah argued for running, after all it had made him what he was, the monkey championed climbing because she was good at it, the shark swimming - he couldn’t get out of the water and do anything else and the swallow flying, ‘what else?’ I hear you say.  Soon the national, animal, activity curriculum was adopted.  This consisting of four subjects: running, climbing, swimming and flying.  To make it easier to administer, all animals were expected to take all four subjects in the academy – called the Baccalaureate.  This was also the cheapest option.

The swan was excellent at swimming, in fact better than the instructor (an overweight carp) he was good at flying, hit and miss at climbing but very poor at running.  Because the swan was so slow at running, he was withdrawn from swimming and given extra running, often receiving large amounts of running homework.  This was kept up for several weeks until the swan’s feet were badly worn, rendering him only average at swimming.  Whilst average had once meant satisfactory it was now labelled "requires improvement" and so the swan felt a keen sense of failure.

The deer started at the top of the class in running but struggled with swimming and so regularly played truant from swimming lessons, preferring to climb high in the hills.  She would stare, fascinated at the clouds, for hours and dream of flying.  She never flew.

The squirrel was outstanding at climbing, good at swimming, satisfactory at running but developed great frustration in the flying class where his teacher made him start from the ground up instead of from the tree top down.  He was assessed as weak but working towards flying.  The squirrel took this as a challenge, developed a hernia from over-exertion and, as a consequence, dropped marks in climbing, running and swimming.

The eagle was a problem child, with significant emotional and behavioural difficulties and received severe disciplinary sanctions including exclusion.  He always beat the others to the top of the tree in climbing class, but insisted on using his own methods.  He made too many splashes in swimming with his friend the osprey, refused to run and soared out of reach in the flying class.  Incidentally, flying was taught by a large, enthusiastic ostrich who had a double first in the theory of flying and entertained her pupils by describing the wonderful flights she had made, in the olden days.  She had been appointed because she was a strong disciplinarian, could substitute for the tired teachers of running and had an ability to play the piano.

At the end of the first year, a large frog received the best overall assessment results. She could swim exceedingly well, run, climb and fly (some argued it was actually a long leap but she did "move through the air with purpose").  She was top of the class.

The first animal academy with this new curriculum became famous.  The head animal received a medal and many copied its approaches and the curriculum.  But the system was not a complete success.  The moles kept their children out of school and refused to pay the educational taxes because the governors would not add digging and burrowing to the curriculum.  They were strong believers in a holistic education and so apprenticed their children to a badger, who ran a mining business.  Later they joined up with the rabbits and lemmings to start a successful fee paying private gold mine.

Eventually, each of the animal academies became so similar that many animals refused to go.  Then another group of politicians struck a public-private partnership deal with humans to finance some Star Animal Academies.  There could only be a few of these very special schools, but ‘what to call them?’ They could not be called academies – that was not special,  or different enough any more.  Eventually they decided to call them “Zoos”, some sort of acronym. This name was so different it created lots of interest.  Visitors, from all over the world went to view the animals in the new Zoos.  They arrived so excited at the prospect of seeing the new products of the newest of education systems but when they looked, they became silent.  What they were seeing didn’t seem quite right….there was something wrong…. the animals just paced up and down and never made a noise…..there was something almost unnatural about the way they behaved……

On seeing this one of the most enlightened of the new politicians looked for inspiration in one of the few libraries left.  There he found a dusty old book which described an educational organisation called a State School, run by a Local Education Authority.  He could remember what authority meant and so he read on, slowly realising he had discovered a new and exciting idea for another educational system.    So, he stuffed the old book deep into his pocket, found the biggest soap box he could find, jumped on it and called out, "Hey, listen, gather round I have this great new idea for education!"  He was almost, but not quite, silenced by the rumbling sound of an approaching band wagon..

Wednesday 28 March 2012

"The Riot Report" - What now?

The Riot Report" See BBC Education is causing flurries of disturbances around the country, especially in areas directly affected by last summer's riots.  

Embedded image permalink

  picture nicked from here

Proposals include:

  • a new requirement for schools to develop and publish their policies on building character
  • primary and secondary schools should undertake regular assessments of pupils' strength of character
  • schools develop and publish a careers support guarantee, setting out what a child can expect in terms of advice, guidance, contact with businesses and work experience options
  • schools failing to raise the literacy rate of a child to an age appropriate standard should cover the financial cost of raising their attainment  and
  • Ofsted undertake a thematic review of character building in schools

Colleagues in education will need to keep very calm when they read comments at the end of the BBC piece!  The "them and us" brigade are in there fast, brandishing canes and calling for National Service but calmer voices are there too, echoing those as I noted in this BLOG last August (scroll down from here)

It is heartening that most of the conversations and comments about "The Riots" in my social life and the social media (including Facebook) has been thoughtful and considered.  I'm struck, most forcibly by the calm response of some victims who have already spoken of forgiveness.

So, taking a leaf from the calmer voices, I am advising one school to have serious conversations before reacting, or acting on any recommendations.  None of this is an argument for the complacent "We are already doing it" or the desperate, "We must add more into the mix!"  It is call for a calm, interdependent review of current provision, a considered reaffirmation of the good already in place and the careful design of an holistic view of the social and academic curriculum.  Having held up that warning sign, here's a two stage model we are using that others might find useful: 

Stage One 
Read the report (and reports of the report) with these Don'ts and balancing  Do's in mind:

Don't get angry about all the social ills landing in your overflowing in-tray
Do feel good that you are being seen as key players in other than examination league  tables.
Don't see the curriculum as the National Curriculum, the timetable, or the subjects taught
Do see the curriculum as the sum of all a student experiences  (each and every student - it will be different).
Don't hunker down and try to sort it internally or, worse, as a pastoral issue
Do involve calm and considered voices from across your community
Don't knee-jerk and add "Charactership" to Citizenship, Community Studies and all those other add-ons after similar national panics.
Do look at what is already there in your current provision  (esp SMSC - a key focus for Ofsted) and look for ways to amalgamate and harness similar curriculum objectives.
Don't just implement what is recommended
Do look at the purpose of the recommendations and see if you are already doing it - or if there is a better way before you implant a, well intentioned but, "one size fits all" solution.

Stage Two

Build your response into the normal process of curriculum review and development planning
Schools already have strategies to review and develop their curriculum. Critical incidents, political and educational initiatives and new ideas all trigger change or developments. The "Riot Report" hits all three buttons.  Here are ten suggestions (updated from my post of August 2011)  that might be appropriate when reviewing Spiritual, Moral, Social and Cultural (SMSC) provision in the light of the "Riot Report" and more generally around school."

  1. Encourage reasoned debate amongst colleagues, students and members of the community about what happened locally in relation to the riots, and how young people reacted at the time.  What are the specific and local conditions for young people? (Beware of saying it didn't happen here - we have no problem) Ask - what might we need to develop, or change, in our provision?
  2. Try to understand "Why?" it happened by talking to those who really know how young people think and behave (not those who have an idealised view - or a demonising view of the young) Invite speakers in to illuminate this perspective.
  3. Develop 1 & 2 into systems for including debate and discussion of current affairs and wider perspectives in school.  See the excellent "The Day" on-line newspaper   Use the moral dilemmas in The Day e.g. "Walk in the stolen trainers of those who rioted.  What circumstances, background, education, values and beliefs could lead an individual, or gang to do those things?  Now use evidence from 1-3 to inform a review of SMSC and more general issues in and around school
  4. Discuss and debate your SMSC provision i.e. How might we better educate this and future generations so there is a Moral Purpose  (character building) as well as a Functionality in their learning - Stress that this is not just "school and curriculum" -  include family, friends, community/society, Children Services Colleagues, local politicians, third sector ad interested citizens as part of this educational process.
  5. Undertake a curriculum mapping exercise to ensure any key issues that may, or may not, emerge as "character building descriptors" are already there in your SMSC provision.  Consider the SMSC Grid an excellent way to do a simple SMSC tracking and evaluation exercise (there are great prompts within the program)
  6. (I promise this is not flippant) Analyse the language within your curriculum, especially around SMSC to see if "character building" is already there but called something else!  One colleague said to me, "Most of us are doing this most of the time anyway” but be sure you know this is true and not an idle claim. More generally:
  7. Encourage colleagues to teach about and find ways youngsters can experience the critical link between action and consequence and understand not just their "independence" but our "interdependence" locally, nationally and globally.
  8. Find ways the organisation can (increasingly) give and demonstrate for youngsters the fragility, risk and inspiration of real responsibility, as they grow into educated adults
  9. Accept  that we are all role models for the eager eyed young who are ALWAYS looking for exemplar peers and adult citizens they want to emulate...(be we bankers, politicians, teachers, parents, bloggers or whatever label they choose to label us with) And critically, not as a first, or last resort, but as turbo charger for the above:
  10. Strengthen, develop, or create your sequential, stepped, behaviour management policy that rewards "agreed good" behaviour and your parallel sequential, stepped, behaviour management system that first teaches the consequences of "agreed bad" behaviour and then increasingly sanctions the breaking of this.
My hypothesis is that, most schools, already have the basis of "policies for building character" and system for "regular assessments of pupils' strength of character".  

As always, I'm happy to share ideas and offer help to individuals and schools who want to pursue this, at a practical level -

And finally...for some Easter fun, if we did have "Charactership" lessons what would they look like?   Any starter activities?