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



Michael Quinn Patton on Using Children’s Stories to Open Up Evaluation Dialogues

Greetings colleagues. My moniker is Michael Quinn Patton and I do independent evaluation consulting under the name Utilization-Focused Evaluation, which just happens also to be the title of my main evaluation book, now in its 4th edition. I am a former AEA president. One of the challenges I’ve faced over the years, as many of us do, is making evaluation user-friendly, especially for non-research clients, stakeholders, and audiences. One approach that has worked well for me is using children’s stories. When people come to a meeting to work with or hear from an external evaluator, they may expect to be bored or spoken down to or frightened, but they don’t expect to be read a children’s story. It can be a great ice-breaker to set the tone for interaction.

Hot Tip: I first opened an evaluation meeting with a children’s story when facilitating a stakeholder involvement session with parents and staff for an early childhood/family education program evaluation. The trick is finding the right story for the group you’re working with and the issues that will need to be dealt with in the evaluation.

Rad Resource: Dr. Seuss stories are especially effective. The four short stories in Sneeches and Other Stories are brief and loaded with evaluation metaphors. “What was I scared of?” is about facing something alien and strange — like evaluation, or an EVALUATOR. “Too Many Daves” is about what happens when you don’t make distinctions and explains why we need to distinguish different types of evaluation. “Zaks” is about what happens when people get stuck in their own perspective and can’t see other points of view or negotiate differences. “Sneeches” is about hierarchies and status, and can be used to open up discussions of cultural, gender, ethic, and other stakeholder differences. I use it to tell the story, metaphorically, of the history of the qualitative-quantitative debate.

Hot Tip: Children’s stories are also great training and classroom materials to open up issues, ground those issues in a larger societal and cultural context, and stimulate creativity. Any children’s fairy tale has evaluation messages and implications.

Rad Resource: In the AEA eLibrary I’ve posted a poetic parody entitled “The Snow White Evaluation,” that opens a book I did years ago (1982) entitled Practical Evaluation (Sage, pp. 11-13.) Download it here

Hot Tip: What we do as evaluators can be hard to explain. International evaluator Roger Mirada has written a children’s book in which a father and his daughter interact around what an evaluator does. Eva is distressed because she has trouble on career day at school describing what her dad, an evaluator, does. It’s beautifully illustrated and creatively written. I now give a copy to all my clients and it opens up wonderful and fun dialogue about what evaluation is and what evaluators do.

Rad Resource: Eva the Evaluator by Roger Miranda.

Rad Resource: Eva the Evaluator by Roger Mirada.

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  • Alma Estable · September 29, 2010 at 12:12 pm

    We’ve also used stories when teaching evaluators abut qualitative methods- most recently, some key sections from Alice in Wonderland and Alice Through the Looking Glass worked really well to introduce a range of concepts to a group of Canadian public health evaluators!


  • Kim Sabo Flores · June 15, 2010 at 2:22 pm

    Thank you so much for these tips. I LOVE the idea of using children’s stories to talk with both adults and young people about evaluation. I often use toys and play but never thought of using stories. This is a terrific tip. BTW, I also just ordered Eva the Evaluator!


  • Sheila · April 30, 2010 at 8:19 am

    The Snow White Evaluation is absolutely brilliant! I can’t wait to read this to my next group of Program Evaluation students! Thank you so much for sharing this inspired piece of literature! And thanks, too, for the tip about using Dr. Seuss’ stories as well. Much appreciated! 🙂

    I continue to experience challenges explaining to people why the seemingly simple question “Is our program working (or effective)?” can be incredibly complex to attempt to answer. I welcome all tips and resources for addressing this challenge.


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