Performing Monkeys

Posted on April 29, 2013


This is a post about performance as an adjective and performing as a verb in the context of teachers. In some senses, given the current context, that makes it also about performance-related pay (PRP) but I want it to be about more than that. I want it to be about the whole hoop-jumping extravaganza that the contemporary education system in the UK has become: Ofsted, league tables, performance management, upper pay scales, Teacher Standards, yadda yadda.

As ever, it’s a hopeful post (even when it makes a stab at snarkiness) offering some better ideas about how we (as School Leaders in particular, and teachers more generally) can work with all of the above accountability mechanisms without allowing ourselves to become the performing monkeys of the title (and pictured above); liberated of our agency, stripped of our dignity, regulated by our chains and hollowed out by our experiences.

Perform Etymology
c.1300, “carry into effect, fulfill, discharge,” from Old French parfornir “to do, carry out, finish, accomplish,” from par- “completely” (see per-) + fornir “to provide” (see furnish).

I always like to explore the etymological genesis of words to root through their inherited power and ‘perform’ offers two antecedents as starting points. The first of these is “completely to provide” or, perhaps more coherently, “to provide for completely”. And it’s here where I have my most significant worries and fears about a performance culture in schools: we do not provide completely for our students and we never can. Repeat to yourself “we are not in loco parentis”. If as school leaders we obey the New Right exhortations to embrace our newly ‘liberalised’ (thanks to @samfr for this) pay and conditions by rewarding the performance of colleagues then we are in danger of embedding the inequalities that students carry with them from home and that we often reinforce through setting.

Add into the ‘liberalised’ pay and conditions mix the ‘illiberalising’ imposition of Ofsted interrogation into how schools choose to deploy PRP and you have the ideal conditions for a culture of performativity to emerge that threatens schools in more challenging circumstances, or lower ability sets within schools, or non-mainstream schools. Of course, none of the changes needs to lead to this (I’m not stupidly deterministic in my thinking) but in an increasingly fearful and self-policing panopticon of a school system it is surely not beyond the realms of probability – let alone possibility – that teachers and school leaders will think twice about taking on the school or class or even child in these circumstances. Either that or we simply get even better at the so-called ‘gaming’ of the system. Which would you prefer, Mr Gove?

Theatrical/musical sense is from c.1600 “to make, construct; produce, bring about;” also “come true” (of dreams).

The second etymological parent of the word ‘perform’ is this notion of performance in theatrical terms of “making dreams come true” (who’d have thought that this wasn’t a 21st century vomit-inducer?). Now I may lose a few readers at this point when I say that I really baulk at the notion of teachers or schools being responsible for making dreams come true: they aren’t!!! Instead, as per the old ‘give a man a fish’ maxim, it is our responsibility to help give students as much as we can so that they can do it for themselves. But there are, in my humblest of opinions, too many teachers and school leaders who have a touch of the Fairy Godmothers about them, who see their lessons or their policies as wand-waving wish-fulfillers. To validate performativity with extra pay is to give more power to their fairytale elbows and to encourage more of the same types of behaviours that ultimately keep the wannabe Cinderella children and Cinderella teachers firmly in their place at the hearth, gathering mice and pumpkins rather than seeking out carriages of their own.

As well as exploring the etymology of words I also like to see how they have been deployed for the purposes of wit and wisdom by other users through history. I’m not normally a fan of quotes used disconnected from their context, and so here I have tried to link them to one another and to the context of education in 21st century Britain. It’s an imprecise art so forgive me my foibles and forget my flaws in order to follow the flow of my finking (alliterative hell right there for ya).

Since the days of slavery, if you were a good singer or dancer, it was your job to perform for the master after dinner. (Spike Lee)

I love this quote from a highly politicised performer (and director of performers) seeing the inherent darkness behind his art form, and I see directly the links to education here. If we value performativity over learning – be it by school leaders, students or teachers – then we are simply reinforcing the hierarchical relationships between the powerful and the powerless. In such a system those schools, departments and individuals that perform well are potentially nothing more than those that comply most effectively in raising attainment, not necessarily those who are ensuring that children learn most effectively. And in the era of assessment objectives and success criteria coming down increasingly from on high about how schools, teachers and students perform ‘effectively’ there is even less wiggle room for individuals to improvise in their performances and dance to a different tune than their master’s.

It has been pointed out elsewhere that there has developed, in recent years, a rather circular and self-sustaining logic to education. It is a system where the supposedly independent inspectorate regularly and openly moonlight to act as consultants for schools telling them how to achieve an outstanding. It is a system where exam boards and the regulator can choose to either tell teachers what is on the paper to reward us or shift grade boundaries to penalise us, seemingly at whim. And it is a system where the pressures to perform, validated at all levels by nodding heads all round, stack up on individual teachers and, increasingly, individual students. Get the performance right and the bouquets are blooming. Get it wrong and the brickbats are out.

There are few surer ways to become disliked by men than to perform well where they have performed poorly. (Bryant H. McGill)

But it isn’t just the end users of our education system that suffer from this performance-oriented culture: it is the system itself. Here’s a parallel situation for you to imagine. Picture one of your current GCSE classes, beavering away at their controlled assessment. Now imagine their response if instead of just rewarding those who performed well with a kind word or a stamp or a postcard home you radically altered their treatment at a fundamental level. Comfy chairs for the best performers and hard ones for the worst. Teacher support for the best and self-sufficiency for the worst. Marked work for the best and peer assessment for the worst. And so on. And so on. How soon until certain members of the class would rebel against the punishments? How soon until others would rebel against the rewards? How soon until they would all rebel against each other?

Of course the nature of PRP for teachers would mean that nobody would know for certain who had received pay enhancements for performance and who hadn’t, but that lack of transparency would be even more divisive in itself than an open system of differential treatment. It would generate suspicion and mistrust at all sorts of levels within staffrooms and, perhaps most worryingly, it would potentially leave individual teachers cut adrift from their peers unable to talk about their own professional learning from fear that they may be talking to someone left unenhanced, or from shame at their own lack of enhancement.

There is no reasoning, no process of inference or comparison; there is no thinking about things, no putting two and two together; there are no ideas – the animal does not think of the box or of the food or of the act he is to perform. (Edward Thorndike)

This quote brings to mind Pavlov’s dogs in that the rewarding of performance by those in positions of power is simply a form of social conditioning. Place the dogfood of PRP before the mutts of the education system when the bell of exam success is rung and they will come to drool at the thought of significantly positive value-added and above-average attainment.

But in the classic experiment Pavlov’s dogs continued to salivate even when they stopped receiving the rewards for their responses. They became unthinking and unreasoning. Or rather their thinking and their reasoning had become separated from their own genuine needs, twisted beyond recognition as to be unrecognisable from their natural state. Applied en masse to our education system this zombification of school leaders, teachers and students cannot come to much good. It may serve to drive exam results ever upwards, but will leave us all glassy-eyed, slack-jawed, drool-slathered shadows of what we could and should be.


Men are often capable of greater things than they perform – They are sent into the world with bills of credit, and seldom draw to their full extent. (Horace Walpole)

This to me is the main problem I have with a performativity culture embedding itself within our classrooms, our schools and our education system. Any measure based upon a form of performance can register only a fraction of what we are capable of as individuals, and they skew things in favour of the consummate performers and away from the backstage crew, the directors, the scriptwriters and the countless others whose efforts make any performance possible. The system even rewards the ham actors, those who have learnt to mimic the qualities of the quality performers, but who lack any sophistry and artistry in and of themselves: the teaching-and-leadership-by-numbers brigade.

And the reason I have such a problem with this is because the best teachers and best leaders within schools are the ones who quietly go about their business on a day-to-day basis, shunning the Broadway or West End stage in favour of the lower key, higher challenge roles that don’t bring in the big bucks and notoriety. It is these self-effacing leaders who know that it is their teachers who make the difference. And it is these self-effacing teachers who know that it is their students who make the difference. To put a premium on performance is to put a bounty on their sense of selflessness.

Critics are entitled to have an opinion but no critic is smart enough to judge how a building will perform over time. (Helmut Jahn)

And if our performing monkeys are capable of greater things than they can show us in the narrow remit of student and school outcomes, what of the critics? How can any school system, let alone any school, create fair and equitable systems for seeing the unseeable, recognising the unrecognisable and rewarding the unrewardable? How can they develop measures that spot the inherent unreliability within quantitative judgments (be they national curriculum levels or Ofsted lesson grades)? How can they find ways to incorporate the validity of qualitative judgments?

And how far do we go with the PRP slush funds? Do we wait until the students finish their compulsory education and reward all the teachers who have ever played a part in their success? Do we bundle up some banknotes for their parents and wider family, as compensation for each parents’ evening they attended or study guide they bought? Do we pay the students themselves because after all they are the ones doing the performing in the exam hall? And what happens if they flunk their A-Levels or dropout of university? Should their previously rewarded teachers have retrospective penalties applied for failure to teach resilience effectively? Because what we decide to judge, how we decide to judge it and when we decide to judge it are all uselessly arbitrary choices that someone has to make and performance at GCSE (probably the most common measure at secondary level) is no less arbitrarily chosen, however significant a juncture it may be in the life of a student.

I write songs. Then, I record them. And, later, maybe I perform them on stage. That’s what I do. That’s my job. Simple. (Van Morrison)

Don’t get me wrong in this. Performance is as important a part on teaching as it is in any profession, including those that are conducted in the full glare of the media and in front of stadia filled with fans. It IS important that our teaching leads to students achieving highly, not least of all in exams. But student achievement is the outcome of a massive, unquantifiable and irreducible set of processes within a complex adaptive system (you just knew that the Trojan Mouse thing had to make an appearance here somewhere, didn’t you?). Even within the classroom this is true, let alone in the playground or in the family home or in the wider society.

What the Van Morrison quote above says to me is that performance is the final, least creative, part of the musician’s art. Without writing and recording they are merely Karaokeists, parroting the work of others. Sometimes it can seem like this in teaching too. Sometimes it seems that we are being expected to generate outcomes for students in the form of exam grades without generating effective learning. If teachers are judged upon performance only then increasingly performance will come to be seen as the only thing of value: we are already on the way there. But we don’t need to be the pedagogical equivalent of contestants on the Voice or the X-Factor, singing somebody else’s songs for the mass market that places commerciality ahead of creativity. We are better than that as teachers and, in responding to any PRP advice from central government, we need to be better than that as school leaders.

The thing is, don’t get me wrong, I still love scoring and I hate to lose but now I see myself more as making players play better. Sometime you do what you have to do and you have to perform, that is still there, but in my mind I am thinking about making the guys around me play better and that is never an easy thing to do. (Thierry Henry)

And here’s the reason why, from the lips of (for my money) the greatest player in the Premier League era. At their best schools are collective, cooperative, communal, collaborative and collegiately competitive institutions. Or as Inspector Goole says in An Inspector Calls “We are members of one body. We are responsible for each other. And I tell you that the time will soon come when, if men will not learn that lesson, then they will be taught it in fire and blood and anguish.” Instead of looking for false indicators in the outputs element of schooling we need to be looking for the true indicators in the inputs section and applying our ‘rewards’ there: more PPA time, opportunities to collaborate, powerful training and development, opportunities to learn from and with others, sabbaticals to refocus and reprioritise, etc, etc, etc.

If a player like Henry, a leading member of the only team to go through an entire Premier League season undefeated, understands that his role is to help others become better then there is no excuse for school leaders and teachers not to get it too. We don’t have the same astronomic wages to turn our heads (even with our potential PRP bonuses!!). We don’t have the same global audience to flatter our egos and drive us into the arms of self-congratulation. And we don’t have the same curtailed career-span to lead us into the false promise of short-termism.

Instead we have our relatively modest pay, our relatively small audience and our relatively long careers to help ground us and remind us that performance-related anything is a mug’s game designed to make monkeys of us all. And I don’t know about you but I much prefer it when my monkeys (staff or students) are learning than when they are performing.