Thoughts about the 2018 AEA conference

American Evaluation Association conference in Cleveland, October 31 – November 3, 2018

My homebody tendencies were whispering that I should stay home from the AEA conference this year, as they often do when I’m confronting the reality of a trip. But in the end I went, and as usual, it was greatly worthwhile.

The conference theme was “speaking truth to power,” which seemed timely, and also prompted a lot of reflection. Each of the terms in this phrase needs to be unpacked; even the construction of the phrase requires a critical look.

My conference mission included looking for new ideas and approaches to collecting richly detailed data from program participants, and to using evaluation to support positive change. The conference offered many opportunities in this regard. It was well worth the investment!

Root cause analysis/fishbone analysis

One session, “Critiquing adult participation in education through root cause analysis,” given by Margaret Patterson, introduced me to root cause analysis, also called fishbone analysis. The project she described involved asking small groups of participants to articulate the barriers they experienced to pursuing adult education opportunities. The “fishbone” diagrams that resulted from these discussions provided insights into her participants’ perceptions. I think this technique can be a really powerful way to give people opportunities for significant input into decisions that affect them. I look forward to being able to experiment with this approach.

(As an aside, the presenter also mentioned that the participants had discussed ideas for addressing some of the identified issues. Some of these ideas sounded really creative, and they set me to thinking that many projects that are intended to address social problems are predicated on the idea that a social service organization or agency will identify needed services and then provide them. But I wonder if sometimes it would be better to support communities to identify their own solutions and then support the communities to develop their own capacities, rather than applying someone else’s solutions.)

Unlearning

Another provocative framework was introduced as “unlearning,” in a workshop by Chera Reid, Anna Cruz, Maria Rosario Jackson, and one other presenter whose name was not on the program (and, unfortunately, I didn’t write down). The workshop was called “Accepting the invitation to unlearn: Insights from seekers of systems change.” They encouraged us to think about and experience our work with new eyes. One of the presenters led us through a Feldenkrais exercise where we were given the opportunity to connect our minds with our bodily sensations of breath and movement. I like the “unlearning” frame, in part because I agree with the notion that a lot of the things we “know” may not actually be true, or at least, perhaps, not all there is to know. I suspect I have a lot of unlearning to do…

Photovoice

Immediately following this session, a group of grad students from UNC-Greensboro presented a photovoice project in which they shared photographs that symbolized the conference theme.

Systems in Evaluation

My professional home in AEA is the Systems in Evaluation Topical Interest Group (SETIG). My master’s degree was in Antioch University Seattle’s Whole Systems Design program, which allowed me to delve into the application of systems concepts, often in organizational contexts. Although I didn’t study (or even know about) evaluation at that juncture, the WSD program provided me with fundamental concepts that I’ve employed in many contexts since. It was several years before I realized that there was a group of folks in AEA who shared my interests, and for the past few years, I’ve been fortunate to have found these people.

Over the past couple of years, a number of Systems TIG folks have been working on the articulation of a set of systems principles that may help us to operationalize and apply systems concepts to evaluation. The group has currently identified four: system boundaries, perspectives, interconnection, and dynamism. A draft statement, now being revised, was circulated last summer. The TIG held a think tank session in which the attendees considered specific applications of the principles. Next will be another round of refinement of the principles statement. (I shared the current draft statement in a blog post last summer.) Beverly Parsons suggested two additional principles: holism–a system is not its parts; and power source–systems have external sources of power or animation.

Michael Quinn Patton has been talking about principle-focused evaluation lately, and the general concept of principles seems to be quite a useful frame for projects that are too varied or complex to be easily accommodated by logic models or theories of change. This seems well-aligned with the effort to develop principles of systems that can guide evaluation efforts.

What’s next?

I want/need to know more: There were several mentions of a technique called “outcomes harvesting” in a variety of sessions this year. I may have heard about this in previous years, but it didn’t penetrate my awareness. In any case, this year it seemed to be everywhere. So, I’m going to be on the lookout for an introduction to this.

There’s lots more to talk about, and I could go on all night, but I won’t. A few quick items, though: I attended a wonderful closing session consisting of skits to help us reflect on evaluation dilemmas. (Presenters included my UNCG colleague Ayesha Boyce, along with four others, and audience participants!) AEA is a wonderfully diverse group in many ways, which I greatly appreciate. I find my preconceptions challenged and always come away from the conference with new ways to think about evaluation and organizational change, and with strengthened connections with colleagues and friends.

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