Question Lydia Education

The culture of performativity in Education

Can you explain the culture of performativity in education and provide the authoritative sources for the area?

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Answer Internal Staff

Performativity can be defined as ‘a mode of regulation that employs judgements, comparisons and displays as a means of incentive, control, attrition and change’ (Ball, 2003, p.216). In education, it usually refers to a set of rigid conventions that teachers feel they must adhere to in order to be considered ‘good’ teachers. The strictures of performativity can prevent more eccentric or innovative approaches to teaching due to a fear of being deemed ‘unsatisfactory’. This has a relationship with Judith Butler’s (2006) use of the term; she discusses performativity in relation to gender, but deems it as a series of actions performed which bring an identity – as a particular gender in Butler’s work, or in this case, as a professional teacher – to life. Ruitenberg asserts that ‘teaching is an embodied performance […] a discursive act that has performative effects through its “unfaithful” citation’ (2007, p.265). This performative element can result in a suppression of creativity and innovation in teaching methods which may result in missed opportunities to engage learners. As Ball notes, ‘we become uncertain about the reasons for actions. Are we doing this because it is important, because we believe in it, because it is worthwhile? Or is it being done ultimately because it will be measured or compared?’ (2003, p.220). The term as used by Ball also encompasses the tendency for teachers to ‘teach to test’ to ensure that grades and statistics align with preconceived notions about what should be achieved by learners at a certain point. This can result in teachers feeling as though they cannot connect with their students in the ways they would like to, and that they are ‘working at their students instead of working with them’ (Jeffrey and Woods, 1998, cited in Ball, 2003).


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

Butler, J. (2006). Gender trouble: feminism and the subversion of identity. New York: Taylor & Francis.

Ruitenberg, C.W. (2007). ‘Discourse, theatrical performance, agency: the analytic force of “Performativity” in education’, Philosophy of Education 2007, pp. 260–268.