At a recent staff meeting, I presented my colleagues with a variety of evaluation terms. I was interested to see their reaction to the terms in order to open up a dialogue about evaluative practices in our office. Evaluation culture is something that fascinates me and I thought that perhaps starting at the most basic level, the words we use when talking about evaluation, could give some insight in to how people view evaluation practices in my particular workplace.
I instructed my non-evaluator work-family to write down whatever came to mind regarding the term on the card I had given them. The evaluation terms I had chosen were:
After a few minutes we went around and discussed their thoughts on the words. Not surprisingly, there were several negative connotations surrounding evaluation terms. But let’s focus on the positive for a minute.
The most “friendly” evaluation term seemed to be “Performance”. Responses to this word included “Evaluation”, “Artistic”, “Scale” and “Skills”. I wouldn’t necessarily classify these terms as positive or negative, however this was one of the only cards without the perception that evaluation was a threat.
Regarding “Monitoring” the words that came up were “Fiscal duties” and “Transactions”. Monitoring appears to bring up more financial and budgetary thoughts within my group.
“Assessment” had a lot of writing and a lot of discussion. A few of the concerns that came up regarding this term were academic freedom and accreditation. Within the realm of higher education, this word tends to have more of a threatening connotation than does “Evaluation”. Other terms associated with this word included “Measurement”, “Process”, “Formative/summative”, and “Accountability”.
The first thing written on the card for “Evaluation” was “Sounds better than assessment” which did make me laugh. Other responses included “Not sure if it is the same as assessment” and “May scare some people”. Although this term was decidedly less threatening within the group discussion, there was still a lot of worry and concern surrounding the word.
Somewhat unsurprisingly the term “Judgement” was almost completely negative in perception. Responses included “Criticism”, “Evaluation”, “Unfair” and “Picking sides”. It is easy to see how this term would be threatening or negative to most people, but seeing the exact parallels drawn is really interesting.
After reading over the responses from my colleagues and listening to their thoughts on their language of evaluation I have begun to rethink how I approach conversations with my group. Understanding what each organizations “evaluation language” is can help an evaluator to gain footing with organization members. Perhaps by slowly introducing evaluation terms in a non-threatening way, we can change the perception of some of these more negative terms.
I may even consider doing this activity with a new group of stakeholders when starting a new project or working with a new organization. I think that it would also provide insight for ECB and evaluative thinking work. If nothing else it may be a good icebreaker for new groups. As a field we have to work to show the positives than can come from evaluation, and in many cases we also must demonstrate how evaluation is not a threat. In order to develop a culture of evaluation and a dialogue around evaluative practices it helps if you start off speaking the same “language”, or at least understanding the meaning behind the words that you share.
Have you discussed appropriate evaluation terms in your workplace or with stakeholders? Do you find “Assessment” or “Evaluation” to be more acceptable in your particular field?