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To assess the extent to which the culture of performativity in schools is helping or harming students learning, a distinction must be made between the constituents of performativity and the behaviour which it induces within i) the teachers and institutions and ii) the students themselves. As literature on this topic is overwhelmingly centred on the role of the teacher and teaching, this essay will examine the studies focused as such. The works to be discussed will include those by Ball (2003), Chua (2009), Day and Smethen (2009) and Tan (2008), as well as touching upon the ideas of other authors. I will explore the ways in which they have contributed to our understanding of some the issues surrounding performativity in education and factors that may a have an effect on students' learning. First, I will attempt to establish a broad definition of performativity based on the featured literature and secondly, explore to what extent the culture of performativity through educational reform has taken root internationally (in the Far East) and domestically within the UK. Within this structure, I will also intersperse reflections on my own experiences teaching in an international context, in this case a Japanese senior high school (15-18 years), as well as secondary-level teaching in UK state comprehensive school (11-18 years), showing how these both support and contrast with some of the above themes.
In order to comprehend the multifarious nature of performativity and establish an adequate definition and/or interpretation within the context of education, it may be at first useful to view performativity from a historical and philosophical context. According to the post-modernist commentator Lyotard, performativity:
"â€¦has come to denote the systemic relations within the social order of postmodernity. Through technological progress, the grand narratives of the enlightenment which adhered to either the emancipation of the individual subject or to the speculative approach to knowledge have been superseded by an economy that privileges utility over truth, success over justice and information over knowledge." (Lyotard, 1984)
The spirit of this assertion, in particular, the final reference to 'information over knowledge' is especially pertinent to issues in contemporary education reform and is echoed in the writings of various educational researchers- including the above authors- and sets the tone for the discourse that follows.
To establish a solid theoretical basis for their respective studies, the authors discussed in this essay- Ball (2003), Chua (2009), Day and Smethen (2009) and Tan (2008) - at first had to adopt an analytical design research approach with concept analysis to construct their theories, employing appropriate research methodologies applicable to their individual research aims. This involved the surveying of primary sources, including statistical and historical data and secondary sources such as studies conducted by researchers from closely related fields. In The teacher's soul and the terrors of performativity (2003), Ball establishes his theory of performativity firmly in the foreground of educational debate through an encompassing and influential definition:
"Performativity is a technology, a culture and a mode of regulation that employs judgements, comparisons and displays as means of incentive, control, attrition and change - based on rewards and sanctions (both material and symbolic). The performances (of individual subjects or organizations) serve as measures of productivity or output, or displays of 'quality', or 'moments' of promotion or inspection. As such they stand for, encapsulate or represent the worth, quality or value of an individual or organization within a field of judgement." (Ball, 2003: 216)
This important statement also serves as a starting point to which Tan's Globalisation, the Singaporean state and educational reforms: towards performativity (2008) and Chua's Saving the teacher's soul: exorcising the terrors of performativity (2009) both allude to in the process of developing their own arguments. In establishing a position on the qualities of technologies of performativity, Chua interprets Ball's definition by surmising that: "[P]olicy technologies of performativity define performance indicators and evaluate members of the organization based on their capacity to fulfil these indicators" (Chua, 2009: 160). Tan draws upon Ball's idea to derive a more pragmatic theory, arguing that reforms in education and the rise of the culture of performativity is a strategic mechanism:
"[The] government uses the tactic of performativity as a means of state control even as it implements a neo-liberal education policy of decentralisation. Accompanying the strategies to deregulate the education system are processes of reregulation introduced by the government to monitor and influence the thinking and behaviour of key educational stakeholders" (Tan, 2008: 112).
On the other hand, in Day and Smethen's paper, The effects of reform: Have teachers really lost their sense of professionalism? (2009), whilst covering similar issues to the other authors, no reference to 'performativity' is made (apart from a single citation of Ball); they appear to take a less divisive standpoint, providing an objective commentary of education reform based on common factors and presenting arguments on both sides of the reform spectrum.
Performativity- from West to East
As both Tan (2008) and Ball (2003) point out, "Education reform is spreading across the globe [â€¦] An unstable, but apparently unstoppable flood of closely inter-related reform ideas is permeating and re-orienting education systems in diverse social and political locations which have very different histories." (Ball, 2003: 215). This view is also supported by Day and Smethen, when they say:
"Teachers in most countries across the world are experiencing a similar mix of government interventions in the form of national curricula, national tests, criteria for measuring the quality of schools and the publication of these [â€¦] to raise standards" (Day and Smethen 2009:142).
Given the current global context where regional economic and social interconnectivity is increasing, it is not surprising that high-performing counties in the Far East, such as Singapore and Japan have experienced a reform agenda that shares many commonalities to that experienced in Western settings. Hence, similar to nations such as the UK, the United States and Australia, contemporary educational reform in Singapore and Japan are increasingly positioned as sites where broader political and economic reforms cross and at times clash with a range of political, economic and socio-ideological positions (Tan, 2008:114). This reformation was experienced first-hand, when I worked within the Japanese local government sector, at a board of education as an Assistant (English) Language Teacher, on the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Programme from 2005-2010. I was therefore in a unique position to observe such patterns of transformation that were occurring within the education system from an impartial and objective, if ineffectual standpoint.
When discussing contemporary educational change in Japan, a link must be acknowledged with a national corporatist reform agenda (Hood, 2001). Prevailing critique within Japan centres on the three general areas: a declining population- hence falling enrolments, legislated curriculum reform and fiscal constraint. Contemporary educational reform in Japan could be placed within a unique historical context that is characterised by long periods of stability followed by radical structural reforms over condensed periods of time. (Hood, 2001) The reforms can also be weighed against the fact that schools and institutions have historically been constrained in their ability to react quickly to change due to the fact they have long been administered by a centralised state educational system. This, however, is changing in the current climate of contemporary neoliberal reforms and appears to have permeated right down through to the grass roots of the education, creating a transient system, as Ball (2003) describes, increasingly reliant on 'outcomes' and the establishment of new ways of auditing and verifying such outcomes. Possibly one of the most tangible examples of this was during the course of my work at a Japanese senior high school:
I was asked by the Head of English to assist in the implementation of an online 'e-learning' computer system for the English curriculum. It was to function something like an exam preparation course, with a test at the beginning and at the end to measure the students' progress. It was promoted to teaching staff as learning aid that would "make life easier for all" as the tests and study materials were already written. When I challenged senior teacher as to what exactly was the purpose and goal of this new system (which tested non-contextualised, discreet items of English language), the response was: "We finally have an objective way of measuring their achievement. We can show this to universities, or the education ministry, so they can see objectively through statistics that our students are improvingâ€¦ we [teachers] do not really test the students; their grades are based upon our [teachers'] subjective feelings. We need results to be more accurate, and that is why we've bought these well-packaged materials made by professionals. We have already finalised the contract with the company, so we ask for your cooperation."
Looking back reflectively, how could this seemingly deliberated and engaging scheme not be anything but of benefit to both the students and staff alike? Even after only the briefest of considerations, could any genuine educator articulate the simplest of critiques: how could this standardised test be considered 'objective'? Simply because a score is produced, what does that number actually represent? As the students were not required to do the same test at the end of the course that they took at the beginning, how could this be considered any measure of achievement? These may be only discreet factors in the larger scheme of the pedagogy of assessment, but they always appear to be the first casualties on the front-line of performative policy reform in education. Fortunately, however, even changes such as these in the name of 'convenience' and 'efficiency' cannot be readily imposed without some form of backlash from rank-and-file teachers, as I observed my other Japanese colleagues voice opinions, frustrated with the system they had been forced to subscribe to:
"This is a [computerised testing] scheme developed by a commercial interest from outside our school that does not know, or even care about, our students' learning goals." â€¦. "To be perfectly honest I don't feel good about people from outside dictating to me what the content of the courses should be and what it takes to improve students or how success or achievement can be measured"â€¦. "Why are outsiders determining our educational policy- my classroom policy?"
This, increasingly legitimate, question from teachers is validated by Ball, when he aptly ponders:
"One key aspect of the current educational reform movement may be seen as struggles over the control of the field of judgement and its values [â€¦] Who is it that determines what is to count as a valuable, effective or satisfactory performance and what measures or indicators are considered valid?" (Ball, 2003:216).
What also must not be forgotten here is the condition of the 'teacher' who is promoting the new 'systems' and 'tools' of this reform. In the above scenario, it was apparent that the 'terrors of performativity' (Ball, 2003: 216) had already taken a victim, in this case, the Head of English who, with the best of intentions, believed he was still functioning in the capacity of a traditional teacher. He may have even agreed with Chua, who contends, the aim of teaching is to transform a situation into a preferred one, i.e. students that are more knowledgeable, more skilled etc. and that teachers are therefore 'designers', who employ 'designerly cognition', "â€¦the deliberative logic that guides any activity aiming to transform a situation into a preferred one." (Chua, 2009: 159, 160). However, this teacher may not have agreed, or even been aware that the introduction of such policy technologies of performativity may have quietly begun reconfiguring his designerly cognitive abilities; His "â€¦ cognitive trajectory [now] guided to aim merely at what one might call the horizontal, transitive dimensions, geared towards the production of [â€¦] visible, measurable outcomes" (Ball, 2003: 216; Chua, 2009: 160). The teacher's "'cognitive soul' had been taken possession of by the performative discourse" (Chua, 2009: 162).
As even this ephemeral example demonstrates, the effects of policy technologies of performativity are real and significant. The tidal wave of performative education policy reforms knows no linguistic or cultural boundaries; Japanese educators, like their UK counterparts, are becoming increasingly measured, audited and assessed within the context of their teaching, their research and their day-to-day administration, all in the name of 'freedom' and 'autonomy' (Ball, 2003: 217).
Domestic terrors of performativity
The latter portion of this essay will pay particular attention to the process of inspection and mechanisms employed by the UK government as part of the 'mechanics' (Ball, 2003) of performativity- focussing on the response they induce within teachers with reference to actual experience.
As Tan observes: "Performativity contributes to a 'devolved environment' where [â€¦] schools are to take responsibility for transforming themselves by making themselves different from one another, improving themselves and competing with one another â€¦ In other words, they are expected to organise themselves as a response to targets, indicators and evaluations under state regulation (Tan, 2008: ). Ball elaborates on this notion by specifying the actual mechanics of performativity as "â€¦ the data-base, the appraisal meeting, the annual review, report writing, the regular publication of results and promotion applications, inspections and peer reviewsâ€¦" (Ball, 2003:220). When integrated together, they form a kind of apparatus, fit for a specific purpose- and few would deny that nothing could more embody this description than 'OFSTED' (Office for Standards in Education). This inspection framework is of great importance to the education system in the UK as both a product of a discourse and a mechanism for its reproduction. It fosters a culture of compliance and performativity within a managerialist discourse. Its inspection framework operationalises this compliance; schools that do not reach its standards risk closure. Its influence extends beyond inspection periods; many leaders subject themselves and staff to intense 'surveillance' (Ball, 2003:218) to ensure that practice corresponds as closely as possible to the OFTSED-sanctioned ideal. The OFTSED inspection regime could be considered therefore as the apparatus of the policy technologies of performativity.
I was to personally experience the apparatus that is the OFSTED inspection regime at a co-educational secondary (11-18) school, "School 'X'", which left me in a somewhat perplexing state of both awe and disappointment. First, I was impressed by the reflexive speed with which staff leapt to call of senior management and rallied together in support of each other during frenzied preparations, which involved the collation of a "baffling array of figures, indicators, comparisons and forms of competition" (Ball, 2003:220) . During this period, as to be expected, a flurry of email communications from the senior management team to all teaching staff were exchanged, excerpted as follows:
To: All Staff
15th XXXX 201X
We were contacted by XXXXX this afternoon to inform us that 2 inspectors will be completing a monitoring visit starting at 8:00 a.m. tomorrow (16th XXXXX) and finishing on Thursday (17th). This is a real opportunity for us to work together and continue the phenomenal work that we have been doing with our journey to becoming an outstanding school [â€¦] Continue to work together, set high standards, challenge and pass on. [â€¦] Plan lessons and deliver a high quality environment that students can learn in [â€¦] When on duty, please make sure you are engaging with students and challenging on corridors at lesson changeover, keeping this calm, purposeful and orderly. In lessons, keep behaviour to a high standard and manage if not (use on-call as appropriate and be proactive)â€¦."
It is Ball's candid assessment of what he believes this message represents which is most appropriate in this context; he labels it 'the management of performance': " What is produced is a spectacle, or game-playing, or cynical compliance, which is there simply to be seen and judged 'a fabrication'" (Ball, 2003). What we have here then, is the Principal's plot for his performative 'stage play' that all teachers must play a part in. Day and Smethem would argue against this, that this process is a clear demonstration of how "[t]eachers' work [â€¦] is now more transparent, its quality more closely monitored and teachers themselves are held more to public account for students' progress and attainment against results driven agendas which are related closely to government targets than ever before" Day and Smethem, 2009:143). This, again, is in direct contradiction of Ball who, declares: "Technologies and calculations which appear to make [schools] more transparent may actually result in making them more opaque, as representational artefacts are increasingly constructed with great deliberation and sophistication. This arises in part from the gamesmanshipâ€¦" (Ball, 2003: 225).
Continuing Ball's line of reasoning, the following email could also be interpreted merely as a tactical move by senior management:
To: All tutorial Staff
15th XXXX 201X
"Please read the following to students in your tutorial time:
Today and tomorrow, we have two important visitors in the school. They will spend time in your lessons, around our school site and may talk to some of you. Following their visit, they will write a report on the progress we have made since we became School 'X'. I am sure you will support me in showing our school at its best. Please remember that our improvement in basic standards, uniform, behaviour and achievement are because a vast majority of you want our school to become outstanding in every aspect of its work. We can only change if we work together.
To be our best we MUST:
Respect each other
Respect ALL staff and visitors
Respect our learning environment
Inevitably, students- being the central 'players' in this 'tournament' of accountability- were quickly 'recruited' as potential allies: "[â€¦] And, as the teacher also hints, the heavy sense of inauthenticity in all this may well be appreciated as much by the Inspectors as the inspected" (Ball, 2003:222). However, despite their best efforts, the 'value' of the school was 'judged' by the system to be only a 'Grade 3', under the 'new style' rating (replacing the previous 'Satisfactory' grade.) The school had hoped to achieve a grade 2 'Good' rating with greater recognition of its strengths and outstanding features. The school highlighted that the bulk of the data evidence used by OFSTED was based on exams taken some eighteen months ago. The most recent 2012 exams showed many impressive exam outcomes including GCSE English and Maths being well above the national average. It is on this very type of situation that Ball elucidates: "Those in a weak [â€¦] performance position may well submit to becoming whatever it seems necessary to become in order to survive. Performance improvements may become the only basis for decision-making" (Ball 2003: 225), as Principal was forced to concede:
"As ever, and in common with other ambitious schools, School 'X' is very aware of its priorities and recognises the need for on-going improvement in all aspects of its work. [â€¦] The new OFSTED framework seems more subjective and narrower in its focus; it seems to lack the more rounded and balanced view of previous models used. Nevertheless, we are committed to working within the new framework and to learning lessons from this new process" (Principal, School 'X').
In contrast, Day and Smethen (2009) would take this opportunity to praise the attitude of this Principal as they optimistically proclaim, "The role of the school leader in galvanising teacher ownership of change is clear: they are not compliant, but resilient, activist professionalsâ€¦." They continue in opposition of Ball's pessimistic assessments: "There is evidence also, that, under the wise leadership of headteachers, teachers and schools in England are not all incapacitated by the standards agendas of government in the ways which much research by academics suggests. Not only are such schools able to meet and exceed pupil attainment targets imposed at national and local levels, but they are able to do so through empowering staff to make discretionary judgements" (Day 2007, cited in Day and Smethen, 2009: 151).
This essay has attempted to examine the issues of educational reform and performativity from an international and a domestic perspective, through the mechanics of performativity and how it manifests, exploring the effect that it has on teaching staff, and the effect this may have on the people who matter the most - the students. This discussion represents only a small fraction of the debate that rages on amongst academics. What is clear though is that awareness of these issues should be raised amongst all parties concerned. An honest and thorough debate needs to be conducted out in the open; the discourse on this matter should not be an exclusive realm for academics, but also for rank-and-file teachers. I do not believe that teachers are ignorant to these issues- they are- but it is just not something they would wish to oppose in this current climate of uncertainty. This was underscored during a meeting I had with a colleague at recent school placement: things were going fine until the conversion got around to the topic and focus of this essay, with which she replied in a whisper: "'Performativity?' That's not a word you'll hear around here".