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Kathleen Norris on Using Simile and Metaphor to Engage in Evaluation

My name is Kathleen Norris and I am an Assistant Professor and Program Coordinator within the doctoral program in Learning, Leadership, and Community at Plymouth State University.

An arts organization I work with was stuck when it came to program evaluation. They wanted it, knew they should have it, but didn’t know how to begin. We discovered that a large part of the challenge was that they did not have a way of talking about this fairly complex organization that could be understood by everyone in the organization.

Hot Tip: As we met to work on this it became apparent that the organization was the “sun” in an entire solar system with planets, moons, various gravitational pulls and distant stars. Once this metaphor was established, everyone could use it when talking about the organization and it helped to engage several members who had not previously contributed in our discussions. When new “bodies” came into the conversation, we could determine whether they were planets, moons, zooming comets or space junk, etc. Further work with the board and staff allowed opportunities for the members to draw (literally) what “mission” means to them, and then discuss the organization’s mission using the drawings they had created. Some sketched traditional California Spanish Missions, some identified with “Mission Impossible” and a variety of other meanings of “mission” and then we were able to talk about how their understanding of mission in general was like the mission of the organization and from there move to a deeper connection to the real mission of the organization. Now that we are engaging in a deeper analysis of the work of the organization, being able to categorize the work within the metaphor of the solar system, for example, has made the evaluation work seem less abstract and actually more fun.

This contribution is from the aea365 Daily Tips blog, by and for evaluators, from the American Evaluation Association. Please consider contributing – send a note of interest to Want to learn more from Kathleen? She’ll be presenting as part of the Evaluation 2010 Conference Program, November 10-13 in San Antonio.

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  • Jim Burke · November 22, 2012 at 9:05 am

    Very interesting use of metaphor. Scott Ortman at Santa Fe Institute is studying how metaphors shape and reflect culture. A fascinating video is at


  • Melissa Ganus · November 23, 2011 at 1:58 pm

    Very nice idea – thank you for writing about it! I love metaphor for helping bring and keep people together toward a shared purpose. I’m trying to develop good ones for use in marketing an NSF-funded evaluation tool. And we’re working to make it useful to any educational programs (formal or informal) wanting formative and summative evaluations on learning gains and what contributed most to them. I’d welcome you ideas! Pop me a message if you get a chance?


  • Kathy McCabe · July 31, 2010 at 7:28 am

    What an excellent idea, Kathleen! It is obvious that you were able to provide them with a valuable tool for helping them think about their organization. My head is spinning (or is that revolving) with possible connections.


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