We are always evaluating.
“I enjoyed the movie, but the ending was kind of stupid.”
“This salad is really tasty! Can I get your dressing recipe?”
“You should read this book. I couldn’t put it down.”
Book and movie reviews are evaluations. So are restaurant reviews. So, in fact, are all those annoying Facebook comments exhorting you to support this cause or check out that article.
The problem is that we often don’t make it clear what criteria we are using as the basis for our evaluation.
For example, the other day I was reflecting on the fact that both my children have reached their late teens/young adulthood without having had the opportunity to visit any of Disney’s iconic theme parks. For that fleeting moment I found myself evaluating my success as a parent against a marketing-driven upper-middle-class standard of Experiences Your Children Ought To Have. My daughter swiftly brought me back to me senses by pointing out that, according to her criteria I was doing just fine:
“Well, let’s see Mom– I don’t enjoy rides, I hate waiting in line, and I prefer to avoid crowds–so really I’m OK with that.”
I was reminded of her insightful bit of reframing today when I read through the evaluations for a workshop I recently instructed. Out of 24 participants, 23 seem to have thought the workshop was interesting, engaging, relevant, important, etc. The other one thought it sucked.
You can please some of the people some of the time.
The thing that makes it so difficult to interpret these evaluations is that even though they all answered the same questions, they clearly aren’t all approaching those questions from the same set of criteria for what constitutes a good workshop. Sometimes when I read feedback comments I have to wonder if we were even all in the same place at the same time. Someone thought the workshop was too “lecture heavy,” while someone thought there was too much group “brainstorming.” Someone thought the workshop should be a mandatory part of the program, while someone thought it was a colossal waste of time.
The are probably all correct. If I could sit down and have a conversation with each of them, I would likely be able to determine why they responded the way they did. Everyone approaches experience with different expectations — different criteria against which they measure just about everything around them.
Truthfully, sometimes it’s just not the workshop for you — not because there’s anything wrong with either you or the workshop, but because it’s not the right fit. I hate horror movies, but that doesn’t mean other people can’t enjoy them. I am, on the other hand, a big fan of dystopian science fiction, which I recognize is not everyone’s cup of tea. The problem comes when we try to evaluate the horror film using the criteria that make for good dystopian science fiction, or vice versa.
I will dust off the evaluation report next time I prepare to offer this workshop. I may tweak a few things as a result. But given that the overwhelming impression was positive, I won’t sweat the details. What I might do is add in a few more explanations of why we are doing what we are doing as we do it– not because I think I need to justify my instructional design decisions, but so that my students and I can come closer to being on the same page when it comes to how to evaluate the workshop. If I’ve made it crystal clear that I’m only offering hot fudge sundaes, you can’t complain that you didn’t get a banana split.
Well you can, but it won’t change the menu.