Performativity — Is our obsession with grades, targets and tests impeding our ability to radically innovate?

“If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original”
— Sir Ken Robinson

The need for radical innovation

There’s no denying it. The earth is on the verge of a series of environmental and social tipping points, all with potentially devastating consequences for us humans if we do not act fast.

To avoid mass devastation we need to innovate. But incremental innovation is no longer enough and we must aim higher. In the words of John Elkington ‘We need to aim for a zero carbon economy’: zero landfill, zero fossil fuels, zero pollution, and zero virgin resources, a goal that can only be achieved with radical innovation. ‘Creative destruction’ (Schumpeter) in its biggest sense is required — elements of the old economy must be crashed and new ones built. But this will involve massive failures. The problem is that the UK’s major institutions no longer recognise failure; in fact, they avoid it at all costs.

Our education system has been attacked for ‘teaching to test’ and lowering of standards to increase exam passes; and even Mervyn King has admitted that our economy operates with a ‘too important to fail’ attitude, demonstrated with recent bank bail-outs.

So how can we tackle this aversion to failure? If we are to develop a society in which individuals are more resilient to failure (a trait needed to bounce back from the frequent setbacks related to radical and disruptive innovation), then we should go back to the beginning and look at how our children are taught at school, and in turn how our adults are managed in the workplace.

Both our education system and workplace are focused on ‘performativity’ — a term used by Stephen J. Ball to describe society’s obsession with statistics, testing, grades, and goals.

Sir Ken Robinson in his wonderful TED talk of June 2006, describes how education is stigmatizing being wrong and killing creativity at the time when we need it most. How can we innovate our way out of this mess with no creative ability?

Alfie Kohn, one of the most outspoken critics of performativity in education, believes that the ‘teaching to test culture’ is creating pupils who are less interested in learning itself, have less enthusiasm for tackling challenging tasks, and are less creative and able to think for themselves.

Studies by Kohn, Ball and others have shown that, far from increasing the level of motivation and the productivity within the workplace or classroom, incentives and rewards for goal attainment, be it with grade A’s, sticky stars, or bonuses, only result in the decline of standards of work, and the squashing of the creativity and motivation of employees and students.

Targets also narrow focus. Harriet Kingaby of the Guardian says that narrow targets impede the ability of a company to look externally to the bigger picture. The raison d’etre of students and employees soon becomes gaining that bonus, or getting that ‘A’, not simply enjoying the learning itself or gaining satisfaction from doing the job. A strict focus on narrow goal attainment can stifle experimentation and creativity, and mean that the ‘useful’ mistakes that could have lead to new insights or ways of working are instead avoided or ignored.

This it is argued was the case in the 1980’s and 90’s with the rise in popularity of ‘Total Quality Management’ a tool implemented by many to improve efficiency and reduce errors. Although successful in delivering incremental efficiency based innovation, it is argued that it prevented the radical innovation really needed. As Brian Hindo puts it in his 2007 article for Business Week: ‘While process excellence demands precision, consistency, and repetition, innovation calls for variation, failure, and serendipity’.

So is there another way?
Well watch this blog! But in the meantime here are some current thoughts on the matter.

Daniel Pink in his book ‘A whole new mind’ blows the trumpet for Montessori education — a system of learning that creates professionally and personally independent and successful adults through ‘autonomy, mastery and purpose’. Two fine examples of former Montessori alumni are Sergey Brin and Larry Page, Co-founders of Google — considered to be one of the most innovative companies in the world.

Google themselves run an innovative management programme to motivate staff — the now infamous ‘20% time’. The programme picks up on the skills that Pink celebrates in Montisorri education: ‘autonomy, mastery and purpose’; allowing staff to spend a fifth of their contracted hours working on non job-descriptive projects. Harriet Kingaby of the Guardian stresses this need for autonomy and purpose to motivate, innovate and create change within a company — the freedom to work on your own projects aligned to a purpose.

Finally, Harvard psychology professor Carol Dweck has dedicated thirty years to studying the mind-sets and attitudes of children to learning and failure, and that of those who teach them. She and her team have created a learning tool called ‘Brainology’ which teaches children to subscribe to a ‘growth’ rather than a ‘fixed mind-set’. Unlike a fixed mind-set, followers of the growth mind-set believe that intelligence can be developed through instruction and effort. From this belief stem ‘Mastery-oriented’ attitudes, which are driven by the desire to learn, rather than ‘Performance-oriented’ attitudes that focus on achievement of good grades. Children with growth mind-sets and mastery-oriented attitudes bounce back better from failure due to their belief that each unsuccessful experience will help them to learn more and improve. These children are more focused on solving problems than finding their cause, and are more willing to take the necessary risks to innovate.

Maybe if a similar approach were taken to the management of employees with the workplace, then we would see the emergence of a more innovative and resilient workforce. One that is not afraid to fail. One that is ready to tackle the pressing environmental and social issues speeding our way.

Have a read:
• Carol Dwek’s ‘Brainology’ learning tool:
• Harriet Kingaby of the Guardian:

Have a listen:
• Sir Ken Robinson’s excellent TED talk:


2 responses to “Performativity — Is our obsession with grades, targets and tests impeding our ability to radically innovate?

  1. Like this and would appreciate being able to send you some thoughts resulting from over 30 years of working on radical innovations in education and assessment. If interested please look at and email me at

    Dr. Jonathan H Robbins PhD FRSA FRPS FCIEA

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