The ABACUS Model

In this paper John Pearce describes the research and theory behind the creation of his deceptively simple ABACUS Model – a unique self-evaluation and improvement process. He also explains the seamless link between the model and the sophisticated iAbacus® on-line software.

Introduction

From the start the ABACUS Model is different. It is built on an important assumption – that the individual professional and team already have an informed understanding of their and their organisation’s level of performance and the reasons it may be so.

The Model harnesses this professional respect to build an organisation’s capacity for success. It does so by empowering individuals and teams of professionals, using a blend of self-evaluation, action research and collaborative inquiry. The staged approach within both The ABACUS Model and iAbacus Software utilises a deceptively simple visual and kinaesthetic process of moving beads from left to right to signal improvement, progress and success.

Unusually, and deliberately, it combines the emotional intelligence required in effective coaching with the rigour of criterion referenced inspection.

There are 4 stages in the cyclical Abacus model based on 4 key questions:

1. How well are we performing now?
What criteria is our judgement set against?

2. What evidence justifies this judgement?
Precis the main qualitative and quantitative information.

3. What helps and hinders progress?
Which of these are priorities and in my control?

4. What are we planning to do?
What will we do, when and how will we judge impact?

1. How well are we performing now?
What criteria is our judgement set against?

Uniquely, the ABACUS Model poses this question, indeed all questions, to the individual, or team, in-situ. This immediately and crucially places ownership and responsibility in their hands, empowering them and enhancing their learning, or capacity building, journey. Individuals and teams make intuitive judgements, answering, “Where we are now”,by sliding a bead from left to right, signalling higher levels of performance.

Users of the model are able to make this initial judgements using their nous, or local intelligence. This stance is founded on decades of coaching and quality assurance work demonstrating that professionals are likely to know and understand most about the special local circumstances influencing their practice. This is increasingly supported by evidence from research indicating that improvement can only be sustainable when all in the organisation have the capacity to self-evaluate, in order to make strategic plans for progress (see References).

Historically, evaluation, or improvement models, have used quality control approaches starting with data and evidence gathering. Such approaches were designed principally for the benefit of external inspectors, who required the evidence in order to make their judgements. These models tend to be regulatory and not primarily for learning purposes.
It is important to stress that The ABACUS Model does not seek to undermine the importance of another’s expertise, or external viewpoint. Rather, it is premised on a view that wise external evaluators, collaborators and leaders will suspend their own judgement, in order to use it in feedback, when appropriate, to strengthen the capacity of their colleagues. This enhances both respect and professional growth through the use of self-evaluation and improvement planning. At best, the ABACUS Model is a process of validated self-evaluation.

In this way, the individual strengthens their judgement by checking it against agreed criteria, from a wider, and often national context. This not only raises awareness and expectations but also influences, or validates, their professional perspective.

Research shows that many, if not most, will underestimate their level of performance, even when given descriptors and criteria for their judgement. Others will overestimate. Requiring judgements to be verified, at this stage, leads to two clear benefits: it challenges both pessimistic and optimistic self-evaluators and reinforces the value of meaningful success criteria, competencies, targets and measures.

The need for, and use of, agreed, or set, criteria is hotly debated. Some believe that meaningful progress requires the individual, team and organisation to develop their own criteria, rather than mutely accept given criteria. Experience showed that not offering criteria, to check judgements, left some early users of the ABACUS Model confused. So, criteria sets were offered and many found this informative. Put simply, professionals are able to decide for themselves whether to accept, reject or modify criteria. It seems patronising to either withhold agreed criteria, or assume it will be slavishly adopted.

 

2. What evidence justifies this judgement?
Precis the critical qualitative and quantitative information?

Collection of evidence is deferred to this second stage to support self-evaluators in justifying their judgement by matching carefully selected evidence to specific criteria. This mitigates the tendency to collect masses of evidence, or mountains of data to be mined later, in order to make judgements.

There is an important relationship between the criteria for judgment and evidence collected. This relationship goes deeper when the criteria also informs the objectives at the planning stage.

Systems that rely on external evaluators, auditors or inspectors, finding and selecting evidence, in order to make judgements, can disempower and demotivate the very subject of the evaluation – professionals in situ, who would often have come to similar conclusions. Replacing the “self” in self-evaluation by someone else can feel anti-professional. It can also insert a scepticism into the accuracy of judgements made by, “Outsiders, who probably couldn’t do our job”.

IMPORTANT NOTE: In many self-evaluation, inspection and quality control approaches the staged process ends here with judgements made and justified with evidence. There may also be some identification of key issues. The ABACUS Model differs by moving beyond a description of “Where we are” in relation to, “Where we need to be,” into an analysis of “Why is this?” and a diagnosis and plan for “How we might progress?” This completes the improvement planning cycle by encouraging individuals, team and organisation to, not only evaluate performance, but plan and act, to make progress.

 

3. What helps and hinders progress?
Which of these are priorities and in my control?

This is the heart of the ABACUS model. It must never be rushed because it’s the engine room where the potential of leadership is identified and built. Ideally, the individual, or team, analysis leads to diagnosis and early thoughts about appropriate action. First, a unique and detailed analysis of prevailing factors is undertaken. People and resources that have helped, or may yet help, are set against opposite forces that have hindered, or may become barriers to improvement.

Once the forces, under the control of the individual, team, or organisation, are fully identified, prioritisation of the most significant factors can be made and tentative diagnoses emerge which can strengthen ideas for planning.

Facilitating this analysis and diagnosis in colleagues is a powerful and effective skill used in coaching and consultancy. So, keeping the professionals, not their line manager, or reviewer, at the centre of the process is crucial. Leaders witness and wait as colleagues wrestle with problems and issues, rather than handing them upwards, to be solved. This is not to say that significant others’ advice is not used, or offered. Merely, that the professionals’ capacity to be self-reliant and self-commissioning is to the fore. A key benefit at this stage is the challenge to individuals and teams to identify and deal with those aspects, or forces, within their control. This toughest stage for the self-evaluator is about facing these, their most concerning issues.

 

4. What are we planning to do?
What will we do, when and how will we judge impact?

Action Planning is the most understood stage within the ABACUS model. Here, priority helping factors (people, knowledge and resources) are harnessed and strengthened. In addition, plans to weaken the hindering factors, or remove barriers, are detailed. The engine of leadership, at all levels, is powered up in a good Action Plan.

Most users will already be familiar with a range of proformas to aid planning. Research shows that key elements in an effective planning format include: What is to be done? Who does it? How will it be measured? And When will it be done? Planning is made more precise, in the ABACUS Model and iAbacus software, by ensuring success criteria are added, to inform evaluation of impact later.

The 4 Question stages are now complete but The ABACUS model was deliberately created to foster a mindset of, ongoing, professional responsibility, so two important additional elements are shown in the Diagram.

 

Take Action
and evaluate impact

When plans are implemented and their impact evaluated this can and should inform new judgments and fuel further cycles. In this way The ABACUS Model is cyclical, ongoing and some visualise this as an upward spiral. Learning from action research and collaborative inquiry suggests that a mindset of, “Looking at what we do with a view to doing it better next time, is part of our work” is far more effective than experiencing evaluation as a bolt on extra, or something quality controllers do to you, or for you, at the end of a completed process.

Collaborate
and disseminate

Collaboration and dissemination are placed at the centre of the ABACUS model, to emphasise the interdependence of professionals in their improvement work. Whilst the process places great weight on individual thinking it must never be a solitary confinement. There are many opportunities in the ABACUS cycle, for collaboration to inform and enhance decision making. Colleagues can support and challenge thinking during : creating and modifying criteria; evidence selection; analysis, diagnosis and planning stages. Advocates of professional learning will be wary of over-advising, or telling colleagues what to do, at any stage. They will prize interdependent professional dialogue above dependency on senior staff.

Shared professional learning, action research and collaborative inquiry approaches inherently disseminate learning. It is important too that progress, in the form of reports, papers, demonstrations, CPD and social media are also used to inform a wider professional community of practice. The on-line iAbacus software, initially designed for an Educational Market www.iabacus.co.uk has additional features facilitating collaboration and sharing of ideas, reports and outcomes further afield, indeed as far as the internet reaches.

 

References

The models, theories and research that influenced The iAbacus Model include: Kolb’s Learning Cycle, The Boyatzis Model, Kurt Lewin’s Force Field Analysis, Peter Senge’s 5th Discipline “Systems Thinking”, Gerard Egan’s Diamonds, Coaching work, John Hattie’s synthesis of research and 6th conclusion on feedback in “Visible Learning”, Heron’s facilitation model, Hazel Taylor’s Tactical-Strategic-Capacity Building Model, John Pearce’s PANINI Model, and Michael Fullen, Alma Harris, Mike Pedler and many others’ writing on Evaluation, Action Research and Collaborative Inquiry.

Further information

John Pearce MA DipEd Cert Ed is a Leadership and Improvement Adviser. As a former teacher, headteacher and inspector he developed the paper-based ABACUS Model in the early 2000s, working as a Consultant Leader, Facilitator and Evaluator with the National College of Teaching and Learning. It began as a process for school improvement and was also used for Community and Business start-up planning with the PROSPECT Professional Association.

In 2011, John met Daniel O’Brien, of Opeus.com, an established software company, and so began a strong collaboration and partnership as they created The iAbacus on-line self-evaluation and strategic planning tool. The thinking, theory and research behind the original ABACUS Model informed developments, with many additional features aided by the software. Daniel and John resisted complexity in a firm belief that the power and simplicity of the model be retained in the software.