Control and legitimation: the role of ‘performativity’

What, then, is the significance of the currently heightened prominence of the modernist discourse of ‘categoric’ assessment which is currently being translated into a panoply of quality, standards and control procedures in higher education? To answer this question requires an explicit awareness of the part different agencies, contexts and practices play in constructing contemporary educational discourse. As Bernstein suggests, such awareness is central to our being in a position to choose the forms we create, or, in plain language, the society we seek:

For me the political implications, although the initial motivation, are secondary to the long process of understanding the agencies, contexts and practices through which we are both constructed and constructing ourselves and others. This involves understanding how power and control enter into these constructions to include or exclude, or to privilege and marginalise. The theory attempts to show both the limiting power of forms of regulation and of their possibilities, so that we are better able to choose the forms we create rather than the forms to be created for us.

(Bernstein, 1995, unpublished manuscript)

It is possible to argue the existence of two, currently competing and perhaps, fundamentally incompatible, ideologies of education. One is associated with, in Lyotard’s terms, the ‘performativity’ - of students, of teachers, of institutions and of systems and may, hence, be termed, a ‘performance’ ideology. The other which may be associated with more traditional ‘liberal education’ ideas and currently, the concept of ‘life-long learning’ may be termed an ‘empowering’ ideology. It may be argued that in higher education, as in other parts of the education system, the currently pervasive power of a ‘categoric’ assessment discourse, is the visible manifestation and cultural tool of a ‘performance’ ideology; that as such it precludes not only the advent of more ‘empowering’ practices but even the possibility of conceiving them.

In his review of trends in higher education systems in Western Europe in the mid-1980s Neave (1988) traces the developing themes of the cultivation of quality, efficiency and enterprise as the basis for the rise of ‘The New Evaluative State’. This, he suggests, is an attempt to insert a particular form of externally defined ‘competitive ethic’ as the prime driving force for institutional, and thus system development. What was originally developed as an empirical, short-term response to financial difficulties at the start of the decade has now assumed, he argues, a long-term, strategic thrust. Crucial to this strategy is a growing emphasis on a posteriori evaluation: working through the control of products rather than of process. The apparently neutral, technicist discourse of objectives and indicators and the pervasive presence of ‘quality assurance’ devices has the double advantage firstly, of appearing to be ‘objective’ and therefore, neutral, so that it obscures the value relativity of the criteria that are the basis for the judgements being made and secondly, as I have argued elsewhere, it is a very effective source of both individual and system control:

As the assessment is increasingly oriented to explicit norms of performance, to centrally generated criteria, rather than, as hitherto, to the largely implicit criteria of the individual assessor, the social power which the imposition of these norms represents becomes increasingly invisible, hidden in the disguise of a bland and neutral technology ... increasingly the criteria of what constitutes ‘the good life’ - the expressive ideology of society as a whole - become synonymous with what was hitherto merely one form of instrumental ideology, that of scientific rationalism. The language for discussing educational goals becomes ... progressively subsumed within the language for discussing educational and social government.

(Broadfoot, 1996, p. 233)

A similar point is made powerfully by Elliott (1996), who also suggests that the dominant discourse about education in advanced modern societies currently focuses on ‘quality’ and ‘standards’. Elliott focuses particularly on what he regards as the dominant discourse of quality assurance. Using Lyotard’s notion of the ‘performativity’ of the system based on the commodification of knowledge through the emergence of a discourse of power which defines worthwhile knowledge, Elliott suggests that education is increasingly being conceptualised as a production system in which quality assurance systems define quality in terms of the ‘performativity’ criterion. In Lyotard’s terms, this is the best equation achievable between output and input, “the optimum performance of a knowledge production system as this is measured against indicators of the commodity value of its outputs” (p. 9). Thus, Elliott suggests the application of quality assurance procedures should be seen as a discourse of power, the emerging form of legitimation in postindustrial societies for both the production of knowledge through research and its transmission through education; that the new discourse of power both legitimates the commodification of knowledge and delegitimates the old meta-narratives.

These ‘meta-narratives’ he defines as alternative educational ideologies. As Harris (1979) has argued, silences are as much constitutive of educational ideologies as their explicit components. It is significant that in higher education, its potential role in contributing to the development of understanding of the ‘good life’ and the inculcation of wisdom hardly appear. Rather the established hegemony of the pursuit and acquisition of disciplinary knowledge, reflects what Lyotard terms an ‘emancipatory’ ideology in which the emphasis is on the transmission of systematic bodies of knowledge as the rational foundation for human and social progress. In this modernist perspective, the teachers’ task is to teach the necessary bodies of knowledge and not to dabble in values. Any erosion of these narrow boundaries would, argues Lyotard, imply a lack of respect for students as practical subjects capable, or potentially capable, of making decisions about the conduct of their life for themselves.

Rooted as it is in Enlightenment notions of scientific rationality it is not surprising that this ideology provides the foundation for much contemporary educational practice, especially in continental Europe. It finds clear expression, for example, in France, where it is no part of the teacher’s job at any level of educational provision either to be concerned with the individual’s personal or social needs nor to take any responsibility for their learning beyond the cognitive. It was, until relatively recently, the dominant ideology of UK higher education. A pale reflection of this ‘meta-narrative’ may be traced too in the English National Curriculum in schools with its emphasis on the transmission of subject knowledge against the more broadly-based conceptions of tradition. However the recent ascendancy of assessment, rather than curriculum goals, together with a growing emphasis on the inculcation of competencies and skills has arguably combined to replace this ideology with one based on ‘performativity’.

The alternative ideology that Lyotard terms the ‘speculative’, in which the value of knowledge is defined not in relation to its immediate truth-value, but in terms of its more personal contribution to the individual’s learning itinerary - ‘in the spirit’s history of becoming’ is almost literally unthinkable when quality is defined in terms of‘performativity’. Yet, stripped of its 19th century language and enculturation, this ideology has much in common with contemporary notions of lifelong learning and what I have defined as an ‘empowering’ educational ideology.

Like Lyotard, Bernstein (1996) also distinguishes between an essentially intrinsic, universalistic rationale for education linked to the individual’s own personal, and hence, self-justifying, learning journey which he defines as ‘competency’ in terms rather like Lyotard’s ‘speculative’ discourse. Here the learner is identified as active and creative in the construction of a valid world of meaning and practice; and the educational approach is one which ‘celebrates what we are, rather than what we have become’. Lyotard’s identification of the contrasting ‘emancipatory’ discourse centred on the transmission of defined bodies of knowledge and his concept of ‘performativity’ also finds an explicit echo in Bernstein’s ‘performance model’ and its implicit emphasis on the key role of ‘categoric’ assessment.

Indeed, it may be argued that the advent of assessment in all its manifestations - as a management tool and as applied to students’ learning - displaces such ‘meta-narratives’ to a point where it is the process itself that becomes the ideology, an ideology of efficiency. Applied to the sphere of knowledge, suggests Lyotard, technology subordinates the search for truth to the search for efficiency and the use of technology to enhance knowledge production is motivated by profit and economic imperatives. One effect of the preoccupation with quantitative indicators of quality that this preoccupation with efficiency implies is an emphasis on control values in contrast to the increasingly marginalised qualitative discourse which presupposes:

values associated with the development of students’ capacities for autonomous thought and action and thereby conceptualises education as a complex and dynamic interactional process.

(Elliott, 1996, p. 3)


the rhetoric about ‘driving up standards’ can be read as an attempt to realign education to the commodity values that increasingly define worthwhile or legitimate knowledge in post-industrial societies ... the task of education is not the dissemination of a general model of life, not to transform students’ minds but to supply the system with the merchandise it needs in the form of information and skills.

(Elliott, 1996, p. 10)

If this is true it suggests that we have reached a stage in the development of assessment as a policy device in which its role is not just to hold educational institutions accountable for standards but rather, to redefine the standards themselves in terms of economic commodity values. Elliott quotes the argument that “the educational system itself is being ‘reformed’ from its previous position as part of the social democratic welfare state to constitute a ‘leading sub-sector’ of the new liberal economies emerging in postindustrial societies” (Elliott, 1996, p. 6) and suggests, as this article has, that quality assurance activities are not simply, or even mainly about raising standards, but rather play a central role in “changing the rules which shape educational thought and practice. They are part of a language game which serves the interests of power and legitimates those interests in terms of the performativity criterion” (Elliott, 1996, p. 16).

Thus, rather than being simply an attempt to enhance the quality of systems for the acquisition of traditional forms of knowledge, the current obsession with assessment devices of all kinds underpins a change in concepts of knowledge and standards, the development of a new epistemology. Or, to put it a different way, as different groups within the education system seek to accommodate to the new requirements being placed on them through a variety of mediations based on their own values and understandings with regard to the goals of education and how they may best be achieved, they are gradually changing the discourse through which the ideology and practice of education at any particular level is expressed.

There is a close link here with Bernstein’s notion of the ‘pedagogic device’ which he defines as “the symbolic ruler for consciousness - the fundamental system for both creating and controlling the unthinkable” (1996, p. 50).

Bernstein describes how different interests struggle for control of the ‘pedagogic device’ as the means for, in turn, controlling consciousness, identity and desire since ‘pedagogic modalities’ are crucial realisations of symbolic control, and thus of the process of cultural production and reproduction. Bernstein distinguishes between the ‘distributive rules’ which control access to the arena for the legitimate production of discourse and ‘evaluative rules’ which ‘shape any given context of acquisition’. In between these two the recontextualising rules define both the way in which the education is to be delivered and the underlying moral order which regulates that process in terms of, for example, social relations and social identity.

Thus in his delineation of the fundamental processes of social and cultural reproduction Bernstein also emphasises the crucial role that assessment procedures play in shaping the content and organisation of educational provision, in translating the dominant discourse into both broad social understandings and specific educational practices. Current developments in this respect are revealed at primary school level in:

the increasingly tight classification of the curriculum into clearly delineated subjects; the growing strength of the framing of both teachers’ and pupils’ work so that they have less and less autonomy and choice; and the designation of times and spaces for particular purposes, are all clear indicators. Perhaps most powerful of all however, is the changing assessment discourse and the way in which the language of levels and achievement for pupils, institutional evaluation, standards and ‘value- added’ for schools, reflect a profound change in both Bernstein’s regulative discourse which creates social order, social relations and social identity and the instructional discourse which is associated with the inculcation of particular knowledge and skills.

(Broadfoot & Pollard, 1998)

Whilst higher education has arguably long been characterised by strong classification and framing, the changing role of assessment in constraining and commodifying the learning taking place is arguably a much more recent development in its currently pervasive form. The changes the sector has experienced are arguably very similar to those that have taken place in primary schools which were also, until recently, relatively autonomous institutions. Now, notions of quality embody the prevailing discourse of ‘performativity’ and are defined through the criteria which inform the various assessment activities to which individuals and institutions are subject.

Because, by its nature, assessment appears as a neutral tool, the ideological work that it affects is rarely called into question. The result is that it becomes increasingly difficult to articulate a different ‘pedagogic device’; a different vision of quality in higher education or of the pedagogical conditions which would make it possible. The likelihood of developing the type of educational institution that will be needed to foster ‘life-long learning for all’ is correspondingly reduced. This is because, as the next section of this article discusses, the increasingly pervasive discourse of ‘categoric assessment’ means that a substantial, and probably correspondingly increasing, number of learners are put off the business of learning at a relatively young age by the experience of failure. On the other hand, the institutions themselves are condemned to pursue and prioritise those learning goals which form the basis of the ‘league tables’ and other external quality assessments on which they will be judged.

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