Tagged: performativity

What is it I do?


What happens there?

A number of people have asked me ‘what are you doing your PhD in?’  Sometimes, ‘education’ is enough but many who know me better or are a little more interested in what I do deserve a more thorough answer but without giving out  my 12,000 word proposal to read – that may be unkind. You can skip straight to the slideshow but the outline below will give a lot better idea.

National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) is the annual high-stakes standardised testing of children aged between 8 and 14 in every Australian school in literacy, numeracy and grammar conventions. NAPLAN is a major part of the Federal Government’s education reform (no wait, ‘revolution’). Publishing of NAPLAN results and detailed school data on the MySchool website aims to encourage parents to hold schools accountable for student performance. MySchool is there to empower parents with data (NAPLAN, school profile, finances, staffing, socieoconomic indicators to name a few) about the school their children attend. Our current PM has publicly and repeatedly hoped that NAPLAN and MySchool website ‘encourage robust discussions between the parents and the schools’. Her predecessor (equally) famously claimed that ‘if parents vote with their feet [if schools aren’t performing] that is exactly what the system is designed to do’. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? Makes sense? I mean, schools have to be accountable, everyone is these days… And while the policy unproblematically attempts to empower parents, there is a serious lack of research on how they respond to the challenges and opportunities created by NAPLAN and MySchool.

This push for accountability and business-like application of neoliberal market principles in education (‘GERM’; Sahlberg) runs hand in hand with another powerful manufacturer of ‘common sense’ – performativity. While performativity is nothing new, it has intensified over the past two decades in its influence on both educational policy development and parental responses to it. This intensification has been fuelled by the ascendancy of the mentioned neoliberal market-based ideology and proliferation of technological tools of measurement and surveillance.

Central to the functioning of performativity is “translation of complex social processes and events into simple figures and categories of judgement ” (Ball,  2003, p. 217). This transforms the view of education and its complexities into a set of indicators we can use to name, differentiate and, importantly, compare individuals, organisations, even entire educational systems in a seemingly hyper-rational, objective, unproblematic way. Constructed metrics encapsulate and represent the worth, quality or value of an individual or a school. Their reified and strategic use normalises and regulates what is valued and desirable as ‘quality’ and directs human effort towards what seems, in economic sense, a perfectly desirable, logical goal – a series of calculated performances to achieve the targeted outputs efficiently and with minimum of inputs. Schools, students, teachers have been getting in on the act and/or avoiding it in a myriad of ways. Much has been written about it. But we don’t know much about how this plays out with the parents, the increasingly important ‘educational consumers’.

Which brings me to the third ‘force’ in play here – parenting. Just how does NAPLAN feature, play out in parents’ lives? What do they (not) do about it? Anything differently? How well do the lofty goals of parent power envisaged and spruiked by our leaders really play out on the ground? And just how does NAPLAN and associated MySchool play out with parents coming from different socioeconomic, cultural backgrounds and experiences, rewards of schooling? How much or do the parents fear NAPLAN or do they see it as an opportunity? You see, the questions are … endless.

So, for the next three years I will be deeply interested in what happens at the intersection of policy, performativity and parenting in the context of NAPLAN by the parents of kids in three public primary schools.

In the early 2013, I will be visiting parents of kids in three very different primary schools – one comfortable middle/upper class pushing for and publishing NAPLAN results prominently, one middle-of-the-road with great focus on arts (area that, with sport, usually suffers first in the rush to prepare for NAPLAN), and one … what label shall we use: working class? lower class? struggling? disadvantaged? The kinda school I had worked in most of my career (if you’ve read any of my posts tagged ‘teaching’ you’ll get the idea). I will go there to talk to parents and learn, collect and interpret stories.

No, I am not trying to work out “what Australian parents think of NAPLAN”.  The aim of my study is to optimise understanding of the case rather than generalise beyond it. My study (a case study of parents in three very different primary schools) will not seek to represent all responses to NAPLAN by Australian parents. It will seek to capture, interpret and compare the cases of parents at each of the three proposed research sites and gain valuable local, regional, contextual knowledge Foucault speaks of.

At the same time, this may help us advance understanding the broader issue of NAPLAN, high stakes testing, performativity, and parenting and serve as a stimulus for other work in the area. A case study like this can be usefully seen as a small step toward grand generalisations or perhaps signal limitations to the existing grand generalisations.

I am fascinated by parents (well, I am one) and pressures, expectations, stresses they are put under as well as their ingenuity, commitment, understanding and sometimes plain rudeness and cold ruthlessness. While I have necessarily narrowed and deepened my PhD project, I think it is important to keep an eye on the broader trends, events and incidents that affect parents of school kids here in Australia and beyond. If you see any useful posts, tweets, sites, projects etc that have something to do with parents and education please do ping me on Twitter, here or otherwise. Many thanks.

Here are the slides … (link if the slides don’t show for some reason)

Enough to keep me busy for three years at least 😉 !

Ball, S. (2003b). The teacher’s soul and the terrors of performativity. Journal of Education Policy, 18(2), 215-228.

The beast of performativity


There is a very good chance that over the past decade or so you have experienced one or series of reviews,  performance management meetings, appraisals, inspections, key performance indicators, benchmarks, bonus rewards and a myriad of similar management technologies that measured your ‘outputs’ and outputs of those in your care (eg. students). These would been compared, often quite regularly, and subsequently published for internal or external comparison, even ranking. Through these ‘events’, you had to, implicitly or explicitly, display ‘quality’ of your work, promote an active, enterprising, ever improving self according to some neat, objective (sounding) criteria which reduced complex social relations to a number, scale, list, standard, box or range.

Yes? Nothing new?

Now please, checking that people are performing, doing their job, is probably as old as labour itself. Didn’t catch that fish your people counted on – you all went hungry. Didn’t row fast enough in a slave galley – got whipped. Dug up enough dirt – got extra potato. Won a gold medal – got a bonus. Botched too many operations – got sued. Endless, really.

But there has been a shift in the educational landscape and beyond over the last fifteen or so years and the shift is intensifying. What counts as educative, valuable, effective, satisfactory performance and what measures of teacher and student achievement are considered valid has increasingly been determined remotely, outside the relational space of eg. teacher’s class of kids, school, community according to a set of distant, hyper-rational, objective-looking system that employs a stream of seductively neat, business-like judgements, criteria, standards, categories and benchmarks.

There’s an increasingly dynamic, ever-changing and incessant flow of changing demands, expectations, indications making teachers and students continually accountable and recorded, measured. Educators’ primary tasks (curriculum, care for students, engagement, research) have increased in volume but so have the second-order tasks of monitoring, reporting, documenting, and, put crudely, ‘putting the best foot forward’. In many cases, the secondary tasks of ‘performing’ has assumed the primacy. To make things worse, it’s not always clear what is expected.

And the most corrosive aspect? What is expected is inconsistent with teachers’ own best ethical and professional judgement. Teachers are increasingly made to value things that ‘count’ but know they don’t matter over things they think matter but don’t ‘count’.

Lyotard called it a system of ‘performative terror’. You are stuck, not sure what you do, question yourself, wonder which is ‘the right thing’ … and more.

Some of the main effects, observed and reported widely in USA, UK and Australia? Increased stress, and pressure, increased pace and intensity of work, change in social relationships and (eroded) collegiality among teachers, rising superficiality of measures, initiatives and changes, more paperwork  and maintenance, more surveillance, rising gap in perspectives, values and purposes between budget-allocating, managerial senior staff or higher and those below, on the ground dealing with students, and more …

By way of a couple of vignettes via Stephen Ball:

What happened to my creativity? What happened to my professional integrity? What happened to the fun in teaching and learning? What happened?

I was a primary school teacher for 22 years but left because I was not prepared to sacrifice the children for the glory of politicians and their business plans for education.

It’s as though children are mere nuts and bolts on some distant production line, and it angers me to see them treated so clinically in their most sensitive and formative years.

I have a sprinkling right through this site too, this story perhaps the most notable one.

This is just a glance at the phenomenon, the technology described producing these effects. It’s called performativity.

Know it? Got stories? Let me know. It is one of the central concepts I am looking at in my PhD project. Thanks.

References (if interested… not even a scratch here, rich field of research exists, check Stephen Ball in particular):

Ball, S. J. (2003) The teacher’s soul and the terrors of performativity. Journal of  Education Policy, 2003, vol. 18, no. 2, p. 215-228.

Lyotard, J.-F. (1984) The Postmodern Condition: a report on knowledge, vol. 10. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Performance vs Learning

Balancing Act

I am getting a little tired of unreflective grade-and-test-bashers, silver-tongued and ‘inspirational’ gurus on the educational speaking circuit peddling a rosy picture of learning and lame ‘garden-like’ analogies.

I am getting even more tired of assessment-standard-accountability-statistically-crazed literacy-with-funding, 3Rs, ‘core knowledge’, test and merit pay, bean counters, vote counters and ‘good old days’ pundits.

Well, the former lot is waxing lyrical about ‘learning’, the latter about ‘performance’.  Let’s put ‘learning’ in one side of the continuum and ‘performance’ on the opposite side and ask three questions:

Is there a difference between learning and performing?

Definitions abound. I loosely borrow from Dweck’s that makes a lot of sense to me.

Performance is about doing well when required and expected. The ability to deliver  generates reputation, often hierarchical when in relation, compared to others.  Performance has standards and is data-driven (data as ends, not means), quantifiable, measurable. It is efficient, gets things done. ‘Facilitating  performance’ is about removing the obstacles to overcome. Similarly, risk, error, uncertainty are to be avoided or at least minimised so one can stay in the zone of competence.

Performance is extrinsic. It is about winning positive judgement and avoiding negative ones. Since error is likely to produce condemnation (poor results, diminished status etc), one needs to look smart, competent and avoid looking dumb, oft at all cost. Errors are also likely to produce low self-efficacy (a ‘belief in our ability to succeed in specific situations’; Bandura), and trigger blame on self (“I’m useless …”) and others (“it’s teachers’ fault I failed the unit…”), even  giving up.

Do we need performance in our lives? Sure do, with all its good and bad sides. We all like  doctors to prescribe the right treatment, train drivers to drive safely, athletes in our team to win … you name it (next time you see a politician, remember the above paragraph).

And then there is learning.

Learning is about mastering a new skill, understanding, growing. It cannot be pulled up on demand nor shut down when not needed. It is not a goal but a process, a strateg(ising) to deal with. Whether it’s maths, kissing, football or philosophy, ‘facilitating learning’ is about creating meaningful, challenging obstacles to overcome. Risk is welcome, errors are something to learn from.  Learning is data-informed (data is means to ends). It is intrinsic. It is about being smart, not just looking like it at all cost. Learning breeds high self-efficacy.

Learning is also messy, un-predictable, un-measurable (at least in ways many performance fans would have us believe). It requires going out of zone of competence, which can often be a very uncomfortable and a brave thing to do, especially if others, public are involved. Learning can be very inefficient, wasteful even.

Do we need learning in our lives? Silly question really… Ask a scientist about  discovering a cure for a disease, a parent working out what makes their child eat vegetables, a footballer practising a better way to kick … another endless list.

In short: Performance = doing and not screwing up. Learning = screwing up and doing it better.

Is learning better than performing?

I have never liked telling people what to do, but I do love watching them coming up with their own answers. So, no silver bullet from me today (and run away from anyone who tells you they have one, fast !). But for the record – we need a smart, local, contextual, holistic balance between the two.

‘Learning’ with no ends, consequences, checks, expectations while magically holding-hands-and-singing-Kumbaya shields us from the realities. It does not make resilient learners that sometimes need to stand up and deliver, decide, make a tough call, lead when needed. I have nothing against assessment for example, I just don’t think it’s a great way to motivate, stimulate, nourish interest in something.

Contrary, overemphasis on performance, the seductive simplicity of ‘objective’ standards derived from de-contextualised data and delirious joy of thinking things are repeatable and replicable with people, abnormal focus on winning positive judgement from external others (hello ‘tiger mums’ out there …) leads human flourishing to a ‘performative trap’ – seeing oneself and others in terms of standards, points, wins, data collected. The obsession to ‘look good and be right’ is filling an ocean of human sorrow and anxiety around you and me right now.

Why are these questions important to ask?

The ‘performative trap’ is encroaching our societal, shared mental modes which frame our experiences, shape the view of reality and with it priorities. We are increasingly calling it up to simplify complex reality around us. And because we are social animals, we tend to share it and reinforce it with choices we make.

And just why is it a trap? Take this example from McWilliam:

[W]here error results in painful condemnation from external others who are marking, grading and measuring each move, then it is more likely that a student will avoid uncertainty at all costs, not embrace it for what it might conceivably offer to fresh understanding. So too an institution’s performance, dependent as it is on the judgment of external others, is vulnerable if and when its ‘mistakes’ (ie, a less than dignified place on league tables) are out in the open. When the price of failure is a lack of enrolments, diminished reputation, and/or a funding cut, it is to be anticipated that ‘best foot forward’ can become not simply an important imperative but the dominant imperative that renders all others to marginal status.

So, I answer the above question with a set of further questions (all first-pass, top of the head stuff) that you may recognise, ask, expand upon in your own context. Then work with the push and pull …

To a student:How important are school grades to you? Why? Do you think you would learn as much if there were no grades, tests? What does that tell you about the way you learn? What will you do in situations where there will be no grades and ranks? What do you think of people who don’t get good grades? If/when you have children, what will you encourage them to do at school? Why so? …

To a teacher: How important is to you to ‘get the marking right’? Do you think Bell curve is a necessary thing? Is assessment a good motivator? Why (not)? Are there better ways to stimulate learning? Are students you teach primarily an economic resource to be classified and passed on? Why (not)? What have you learned today? How important is it to you to have the answer students ask for? …

To a parent: If your child seems ‘behind’ in one area but ‘ahead’ in another, what do you do? What should the teachers do? Why so? Is it OK for your child to be happy learning something but not reaching what you think is their full potential in it? How much do your school grades matter now? Why (not)? …

To a school administrator, to the Prime Minister, to the radio pundit, to your P&C council, to your Twitter followers … you get the drift, surely 😉

I acknowledge that all this ‘performance vs learning’ may be a bit chicken-or-eggish, even a false comparison to some, but sure is a good way to get your bullshit detectors working.

Use them.

PS If intrigued by the ‘seductiveness of figures’, head over to these couple of recent posts by Ira Socol  (Measurement and overpromise and Art of seeing ) or an older series of co-writing right here on Human. Good stuff that may get you angry, or thinking … or both.


Dweck, C. (1999) Self-theories: Their role in motivation, Personality and Development. Ann Arbor, MI: Psychology Press.

McWilliam, E., Taylor, G., & Perry, L. (2007). Learning or performance: What
should educational leaders pay attention to? Paper presented at the The 13th International Conference on Thinking Norrkoping, Sweden.