Evaluation from an Appreciative perspective

People who are interested in the Appreciative Inquiry approach sometimes struggle to understand how they can apply it to the challenge of assessment or evaluation.

How does evaluation work?

To engage with this question, we need first to consider the nature of evaluation. There are two key ways of understanding evaluation. The first sees it as a measurement of change in something real. This suggests that any change to be measured exists independently of the measurer and is an impersonal fact of the world; that ‘knowledge’ exists independently of the knower. 

We might note that were this actually the case then medical research would not so value the double-blind protocol where neither the subject nor the experimenter knows who got the active drug and who the placebo. This design is the gold standard in medical research because of a recognition that a researcher’s knowledge can influence their measurement, albeit unconsciously. So while it is often useful to act ‘as if’ change can be understood in this ‘separate from the actors’ way, it is a convenient fiction not an undeniable truth.

Alternatively, we can recognise change as socially constructed. We can recognise that the change we see is dependent on who is looking and how they are looking. We can recognise that the relationship between the context and the actor is systemic: each affects the other. What we choose to search for affects what we find; what we find affects how we behave in the future. In this understanding awareness of change becomes something that we create through our ways of looking; and we make choices about our ways of looking.

We can further understand assessment and evaluation across two dimensions, creating 4 quadrants. 

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We have choices about whether we are mainly focussed on the past or the future; and on assessment or development. We could also consider whether we are mainly interested in learning or control.

Different models of evaluation for different situations - the test isn’t everything!

This useful model allows us to consider different evaluation approaches for different situations. For example, if we are assessing against clear standards, such as assessing someone taking a driving test, then our focus will be on the bottom left quadrant: past/ assessment.

Since much of our assessment, evaluation experience is located in this quadrant, for example exams, tests, and, sad to say, even performance appraisals, many people are unaware that it is only one of at least four ways of thinking about assessment.

On the other hand I am currently involved in helping a group create a ‘strengths-based’ peer review process. This is a conscious decision to create a different evaluation experience.

The model above allows us to see that if the main point of our review is to improve the service in the future then the focus of our process lies in identifying development for the future; and is at the learning end of the control/learning spectrum.


For further information on how to create a systemic appreciative review you are referred to

Appreciative Peer Review: A procedure in the November 2017 Blog of the International Journal of Appreciative Inquiry, translated from the original Dutch article by Wick van der Vaart. https://aipractitioner.com/2017/11/09/appreciative-peer-review-procedure/


Embedded Evaluation by Mette Jacobsgaard and Irene Norlund in the August 2011 edition of aipractitioner. https://aipractitioner.com/product/embedded-evaluation/


This article is also indebted to Systemic Appreciative Evaluation by Malene Slov Dinesen in the Aug 2009 edition of aipratitioner https://aipractitioner.com/product/ai-practitioner-august-2009/