Performativity as phenomenon in education

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As in the case of other Western countries the South African government has put education policies in place to regulate the work of teachers. This development needs to be understood in the context of a shift in the role of the state from that of being primarily a provider to that of being a regulator and monitor. This shift accompanies the erosion of the welfare state across the globe. In the context of education, the introduction of new measures such as accountability regimes has direct implications for all teachers in public schools in the Republic of South Africa. This has given rise to a phenomenon in schools termed a culture of performativity, whereby teachers’ work and worth are continuously measured and the quickest input-output ratio is pursued at all costs.

Ball (2003b:216) argues that, “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”. The rising culture of performativity is closely intertwined with the ascendancy of neoliberalism in the past four decades. In this article we suggest that performativity is one of the manifestation of neoliberalism. Neoliberalism can be traced back to liberal perspectives of the 17th century which became marginalised due to the rise of welfare state liberalism of the late 19th century and Keynesian economics of the 20th century. The revival of neoliberal politics in the late 20th century has witnessed the erosion of the welfare state, the privatisation of state assets and a return to neo-classical economics. Neoliberalism is a contentious term (among both its proponents and its critics). However, there are principles which all neoliberals share. I shall briefly mention three of these: a commitment to individual liberty and a reduced state; a shift in policy and ideology against government intervention; and that market forces are self-regulating.

Performativity plays out in the school context in different ways. In this article we discuss the following effects of performativity that are pertinent to institutionalised education (schooling): the control over the self (Foucault’s technologies of the self); control over others as evident in performance appraisal systems; control through the production of information; control over learners’ performances; control over assessment data; systems of rewards and sanctions; increase in workload; attitudinal and behavioural change; negative physiological and emotional effects; and deprofessionalism. Concerning the latter, performativity results in the erosion of the professional soul of the teacher and teaching/learning becomes a dehumanising practice – a cold and heartless exercise.

This literature review shows that teachers are confronted by the “terrors of performativity” (Ball 2003b:215) that erode the professional souls. However, to ensure that good education takes place, the harmful effects of performativity in schools should be counteracted or resisted. But is resistance possible? In the school – or within the performative society as Ball (2003b:226) calls it – teachers should be the first line of defence. Teachers should take responsibility for their professionalism, otherwise there is a danger of their continuing to function merely as technicians of the state or agents of the markets. As “resisting professionals” (Kim 2010:69) teachers can harness their professional selves – individual and collective – as a means to resist the dangers of performativity. In order to mobilise teachers to give constructive meaning to a resistance movement, the following recommendations are made in the article:

First, because this is a political matter, teachers should create opportunities and set aside time to meet with colleagues. Mechanisms should be put in place to ensure that participation and dialogical deliberations among teachers occur. Collective action whereby teachers have the time to reflect together on their profession and professionalism is peremptorily necessary. During such moments of collective reflection teachers should engage in critical discussions, not only about the dangers of performativity, but also about their respective lived experiences of teaching within a culture of performativity – thereby “giving voice to the silenced”, as Weber (2007:299) puts it.

Secondly, to maintain teachers’ identities as professionals there needs to be a “call to action” (Wilkins 2011:393). Solidarity and collective action of teachers should be encouraged because “there is no action in isolation” (Arendt 1993 in Rue 2006:125). Teachers must have the professional courage and commitment to collectively resist so that a balance between professional and political power is put into effect. Therefore, teachers should initiate processes of seeking opportunities for interaction with education policy-makers. The teaching corps should, in consultation with the state, establish a power-with instead of a power-over relationship with the state (Waghid, Berkhout, Taylor and De Klerk 2005:179). Within a power-with relationship teachers have opportunities to speak about the policy changes that they are uncomfortable with (White 2010:292). In this context the aims of policy changes should be more explicitly articulated and debated so that free and open discussions between participants occur (Delandshere and Arens 2001:564). It is important that policy-makers’ and teachers’ views are brought into conversation with one another, “not only in order to achieve a sense of consensus, which is one way to achieve the success of educational reforms, but also to make any necessary adjustments to policy after getting first-hand feedback on how it works at the grass-roots level” (Wong 2008:268). The challenge here is to change the ideas and intentions of policy-makers so that teachers become more active participants in the forming of education processes rather than passive receivers of policies. In this regard, the teachers as part of a resistance movement would display characteristics of what has been referred to as an “activist professional” (Sachs 2003 in Avis 2005:215). Judyth Sachs’s (2003) notion of an “activist identity” (Whitty 2006:12; Wilkins 2011:393) has the potential of the development of a “transformative professionalism” (Wilkins 2011:393). The new teacher professionalism can be seen as a product of negotiations between governments’ needs and teachers’ expectations of their work (Wong 2008:272). Within a democratic discourse (Wilkins et al. 2012:67) teachers therefore take on the societal role as change agents (Carl 2009:206).

Keywords: accountability; control mechanisms; neoliberalism; performativity; teachers; terrors

Lees die volledige artikel in Afrikaans: Performatiwiteit as verskynsel in die onderwys

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