AEA365 | A Tip-a-Day by and for Evaluators

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EPE TIG Week: Matt Keene and Cameron Norman on Praxis for Evaluation on Earth

We’re Matt Keene and Cameron Norman, from the Silwood Group, a transdisciplinary group of evaluators, systems scientists and conservation leaders. We’re working to address challenges at the nexus of social and ecological systems where complex situations are common, uncertainty is high and predictability is low. Though we can’t be certain of the extent, we are increasingly aware that we see the world not as it is but as we are. Humility must be our touchstone for meaningful reflection on what we perceive and how we act. With that understanding we adapt to the unveiling of reality.

As we enter Earth week we can reflect on the importance and ambition of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the people whose well-being depends, in part, on evaluation’s capacity to honor its role in meeting these goals.

Our team is designing a praxis-orientated approach to grapple with evaluation challenges like those presented by the SDGs. The concept of praxis has a long history, stretching from Aristotle’s practical orientation to knowledge to the political and social activism of Paolo Friere. Praxis is the process of practicing or enacting an idea or theory. Praxis eschews common worldviews that separate and order knowledge and practice and instead positions our knowledge of the world as a practice, enabling us to act on the world more purposefully.

Lesson Learned: Praxis requires attention. It is a living, developmental concept that requires focus, attention and flexibility to continually learn, adjust and improve.

Today, the lens through which we are seeing consists of four elements of immediate relevance to evaluation’s capacity to contribute to the SDGs and other goals set amidst complexity:

  1. Understand values of all stakeholders – values and their relationships may compete, contradict, or complement.
  2. Use wisdom in judgment and action – reflect on our present biases, prejudices and choice, use evidence from the past to design and create conditions for the future.
  3. Learn through ongoing evaluative systemic inquiry – balancing the systematic and the systemic to generate learning through action.
  4. Attend to the whole, humbly – systems thinking in practice to find and understand our limits, acknowledge our “inevitable partiality”…and proceed.

So, that’s a “whole” lot to digest. To help along some admittedly circuitous conversations, we began developing a model of our praxis-oriented approach.

Lesson Learned: This is contentious stuff. The dualism of know / do is deeply ingrained in most of us and our scholarly disciplines. Taking that on is not for the faint of heart.

Lesson Learned: Sensemaking is key. Making the time to come together, learn and reflect is taxing and takes time…but it’s also a party(!) that amplifies learning and extends action.

The American Evaluation Association is celebrating Environmental Program Evaluation TIG Week with our colleagues in the Environmental Program Evaluation Topical Interest Group. The contributions all this week to aea365 come from our EPE TIG members. Do you have questions, concerns, kudos, or content to extend this aea365 contribution? Please add them in the comments section for this post on the aea365 webpage so that we may enrich our community of practice. Would you like to submit an aea365 Tip? Please send a note of interest to aea365@eval.org. aea365 is sponsored by the American Evaluation Association and provides a Tip-a-Day by and for evaluators.

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2 comments

  • Kent Redford · April 20, 2016 at 1:49 pm

    I have the privilege to work with Matt and Cameron on The Silwood Group project. In my thirty years in the conservation field I have found the limits to what science can provide to improve conservation. I’ve found it necessary to come out beyond the wall of science (guess who has been watching Game of Thrones) and into uncharted territory where science and practice mingle warily. This difficult terrain is what we’re trying to map – and it’s not easy. But it is exciting to feel the cold wind of innovation, chilling, and invigorating.

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  • Martin Reynolds · April 19, 2016 at 4:35 pm

    The (conservation) praxis lens is powerful and developing well. It has significant resonance with Blue Marble Evaluation initiative (Michael Patton – EPE TIG Week). For me the underlying metaphor of ‘conversation’ is key to enacting praxis in all dimensions. A core conversation idea for ‘understanding values’, for example, is encaptured by C.West Churchman’s ideas of ‘conversing’ with the ‘enemies of the systems approach’; also Roman Krznaric (Professor of Philosophy at Oxford) and his notion of ‘outrospection’ and empathy (see his youtube RSA ANIMATE: The Power of Outrospection https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BG46IwVfSu8)… humility in action.

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