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

TAG | epistemology

Greetings! I am Steve Mumford, New Orleans resident and Southeast Evaluation Association (SEA) member. When you read this, fingers crossed, I will have just completed a PhD in Public Policy & Administration, concentrating in program evaluation, from George Washington University. I am writing this to share insights from my dissertation research. This research focused on bringing stakeholders’ “ways of knowing” into participatory evaluation.

“Ways of knowing” or “personal epistemologies” are implicit preferences. These preferences guide us as we decide what information is credible. Many frameworks exist for understanding and identifying personal epistemologies. One I especially like comes from Women’s Ways of Knowing.

Lessons Learned: The authors identified three ways of knowing relevant to evaluation practice:

  • Separate knowing resembles common definitions of critical thinking. Separate, skeptical knowers play “devil’s advocate,” debating ideas in abstract, “objective” terms. Think lawyers and scientists.
  • Connected knowing is a less appreciated approach to critical thinking. Connected knowers play the “believing game,” resisting argument in favor of empathic understanding of why a person holds certain beliefs. Think social workers and therapists.
  • Constructed knowing is the self-aware application of either approach depending on context. Constructed knowers build rapport by exploring others’ rationales, but they do not shy away from critically evaluating their claims. Think evaluators!

Hot Tips: Evaluators can take steps to bring ways of knowing into their facilitation. In turn, they might better engage diverse stakeholders and produce more credible and actionable findings.

  • Assess. First, figure out the way of knowing preferred by your key stakeholders, like advisory group members. Administer the brief Attitudes Toward Thinking and Learning Survey (ATTLS), or guide a conversation in which stakeholders self-identify. Be sure to assess your own way of knowing as well!
  • Assign. Throughout the evaluation, clarify what way of knowing you want to emphasize within the group. Anyone can practice constructed knowing! Early on, encourage connected knowing as the group builds trust and brainstorms questions, by establishing group “ground rules” that promote open-minded listening. Later, when the group is ready to debate results and recommendations, encourage separate knowing, assign group members to play the role of devil’s advocate.
  • Reflect. Occasionally bring focus back to ways of knowing to help the group reflect on its process. For instance, call out a group member practicing separate knowing when a connected approach is preferred. Alternatively, ask connected knowers how it feels to play devil’s advocate. In this way, all group members can learn to engage in constructed knowing!

Build appreciation for ways of knowing into your participatory evaluation process, and you will tap the full potential of your stakeholder group.

The American Evaluation Association is celebrating Southeast Evaluation Association (SEA) Affiliate Professional Development Week with our colleagues in the SEA Affiliate. The contributions all this week to aea365 come from SEA Affiliate 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 is sponsored by the American Evaluation Association and provides a Tip-a-Day by and for evaluators.


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