Brief Overview

Performativity has varying meanings and uses. This section will focus on the use of the term performativity by the social sciences and specifically referring to its relevance to education.

Formal Definition

Performativity refers to behaving or performing to expectations derived from social norms.

Detailed Description

The concept of performativity originates in Lyotard's (1) discussions of the emphasis of postmodern society on efficiency and effectiveness, resulting a focus on measurable outcomes and performance. Discussions of performativity in schools describe how neoliberal market discourse relies upon external accountability and surveillance measures to determine and monitor desired outcomes (2,3,4,5). Teachers and schools are judged to be successful when they conform to measurable criteria and successfully normalize. Teaching methods evolve to reflect the expected discourse. High ratings on indicators of success enhance marketability and beget resources. Survival of schools and other educational institutions may be based on meeting defined performance requirements, providing a powerful mechanism for achieving conformity.

Ball (2) describes how performativity is operationalized in a variety of educational settings – “the data-base, the appraisal meeting, the annual review, report writing, the regular publication of results and promotion applications, inspections and peer reviews that are mechanics of performativity. The teacher, researcher, academic are subject to a myriad of judgements, measures, comparisons and targets.”

Implied in the term “performativity” is a critique of the effects of this focus on measures of performance on education, which have been argued to include dehumanizing of education (3), changes in teaching behaviour that are temporary and for appearances (4), and alienation of teachers (2).

Several authors have commented on this issue of performativity: • Butler describes that performativity refers to "the power of discourse to produce the phenomena that it regulates and constrains" (qtd in Identity: A reader, 2000). • Jeffery (3) describes that "A performativity discourse ... relies on teachers and schools instituting self-disciplinary measures to satisfy newly transparent public accountability and operates alongside a market discourse". • Ball (4) describes that “performativity is a new mode of state regulation” which “requires individual practitioners to organize themselves as a response to targets, indicators and evaluations” • Perryman (5), links performativity to Foucault’s writings on discipline (6) and the concept of the Panopticon, stating “Panoptic performativity describes a regime in which frequency of inspection and the sense of being perpetually under surveillance leads to teachers performing in ways dictated by the discourse of inspection in order to escape the regime. Lessons are taught to a rigidly prescribed routine, school documentation and policies closely mirror the accepted discourses of school effectiveness and the whole school effort is directed away from education and towards passing inspection”

Recommended Reading

1. Lyotard, J. (1984) The postmodern condition: a report on knowledge (Manchester, Manchester University Press). '2. 'Ball, S. (2003) The teacher’s soul and the terrors of performativity. J. Education Policy, 18(2):215-228. '3. 'Jeffery, B. (2002) Performativity and primary teacher relations. J. Educational Policy, 17(5): 531-546. '4. 'Perryman, J. (2006) Panoptic performativity and school inspection regimes: disciplinary mechanisms and life under special measures. J Educational Policy, 21(2):147-161. '5. 'Darbyshire, P. (2008) ‘Never mind the quality, feel the width’: The nonsense of ‘quality’, ‘excellence’, and ‘audit’ in education, health and research. Collegian 15:35-41.

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