Beyond the terrors of performativity: Teachers developing at the interface

 

Stephen Ball’s seminal paper (Ball, 2003), which discusses performativity in the public sector, perceptively captured changes in educational policy and their effects on the outer and inner lives of teachers. Seventeen years after its publication, Ball’s radical, readable critique of accountability structures in schools appears to have a lasting resonance with many postgraduate students; particularly those completing professional awards whilst also working within schools as teachers, managers and leaders.

In this article, I note that there was a need not only for the terminology such as performativity and fabrication that Ball (re)introduced, but also for his passionate denunciation of league tables, inspections and the associated paraphernalia of control which appear central to neoliberal models of educational governance.

I contend that there is a need not only to reflect on how these changes have been embedded in practice, but also to better describe the way that performativity and datafication are experienced by teachers. For me, Ball’s use of such Foucauldian noti​​ons such as “docile bodies” and “subject-position” flatten out teachers, rendering them passive bystanders rather than agentic professionals.  This perspective combined with the stark binarism – sell your soul to the performative regime or leave the profession altogether – did not fit with how I identified as a teacher or the continuum of options that seemed available to me.  One reason for this is that the voice of the teacher is relatively under-represented in Ball’s article: in this article I adopt a narrative approach (Goodson, 2017), providing an insider perspective through the use of interviews with teachers to create a richer picture of the experience of being a teacher in ‘an age of measurement’ (Biesta, 2008).

Using Holland, Skinner, Lachicotte Jr and Cain’s Identity and Agency in Cultural Worlds theory (2001), I examine the ‘figured worlds’ of education using the voices of experienced teachers, and consider how the way that they are positioned within schools affects their professional identities.  I also consider how performativity is one of many competing narratives that brush up against each other and explore how teachers ‘develop at the interface’ by choosing how to act and respond and which narratives to prioritise.  Through telling their stories, the teachers demonstrate ‘where along the margins and interstices [they] are able to redirect themselves’ through moments where they appropriate, resist or reject performative and other dominant practices and policies.  This theoretical lens allows us to see teachers as heteroglossic agents rather than what Ball terms sufferers of ‘values schizophrenia’, as they attempt to orchestrate the competing voices around them and author themselves in terms that go beyond ethical or enterprising and outstanding or inadequate.  These teachers’ stories offer a way to explore the inadequacies of binary perspectives in general, and the options available to teachers in particular. This study thus extends our understanding of the different ways that performativity is experienced by teachers as well as the different ways that they can choose to respond.

Key questions for you and colleagues:

  • Rather than asking what are schools for, can we perhaps ask what are teachers for?
  • As a postgraduate professional, how much autonomy and agency should teachers have?
  • Do box ticking exercises seem to get in the way of your teaching and belief in what teachers and schools are for, and if so, how can (and do) you choose to respond?

 

References

Ball SJ (2003) The Teacher’s Soul and the Terrors of Performativity. Journal of Education Policy 18(2): 215-228.

Biesta G (2009) Good education in an age of measurement: On the need to reconnect with the question of purpose in education. Educational Assessment, Evaluation and Accountability (formerly: Journal of Personnel Evaluation in Education), 21(1): 33–46.

Foucault M (1977) Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison Vol. 1. New York: Pantheon Books.

Goodson IF (2017) Life Histories and Narratives. In Goodson IF (ed.) The Routledge International Handbook on Narrative and Life History. Abingdon: Routledge

Holland D, Skinner D, Lachicotte JR et al. (2001) Identity and Agency in Cultural Worlds. London: Harvard University Press.

 

Share your experiences with educators globally by joining the discussion below. How much autonomy and agency do teachers have in your context and should this change?

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