In ‘obey’-ance: one principal’s critically reflexive engagement with research in a culture of compliance


Motivated by my attendance at the 2017 AARE conference and Jane Kenway’s 2017 AARE Honorary Life Membership Award, and framed through the case of an event staged by students, this paper seeks to contribute to a ‘grassroots’ challenging of predominant bureaucratic managerialism in discourses of educational leadership, teaching and school excellence. Drawing on Jacques Derrida’s notion of spectrality, a prevailing discourse of generalised excellence and performance standards is interrupted by a (re)turn to moral purpose in and through an engagement with educational research that recognises the affordances of diverse outputs and approaches. I argue that educational knowledge cannot be justly understood and implemented through such neoliberal ideological artefacts as excellence frameworks and codified lists of universal performance standards because of aporias knowingly overlooked in claims as to the efficacy of such measures. Critically reflecting on my own work and being as a principal, through a hauntological reading of relevant documents, I advocate for a halt to an abyssal slide into standardised instrumentalism, which extends in NSW to the limiting restrictions of an ‘evidence hierarchy’ that has been designed to rank educational research and govern teachers’ engagements with it.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.


  1. 1.

    The term neoliberalism is used here with due recognition that it is not a “stable or unified object, but rather ranges and changes temporally and geographically” (Brown 2015, p. 49). But, influenced by Brown’s recognition of its “differential instantiations and encounters with extant cultures and political traditions”, I am writing in a specific educational context to pursue an interest in neoliberalism as a “specific mode of reason, of the production of the subject, ‘conduct of conduct’, and scheme of valuation….” (p. 48).

  2. 2.

    Aporia is used here in a Derridean sense: “A Greek term denoting a logical contradiction, ‘aporia’ is used by Derrida to refer to what he often calls the ‘blind spots’ of any metaphysical argument….[T]he aporia—or the ‘aporetic’ moment—takes the form of something that cannot be explained within standard rules of logic…” (Lucy 2004, p. 1). A key point made by Lucy is the term’s significance to deconstruction: “What distinguishes a deconstructive analysis…is that it always begins from an encounter with the aporias that must be overlooked in order to make presence seem undeconstructible” (pp. 4–5).


  1. Allen, G. (2016). The transparent university: Kant, Derrida and a new university law. In J. W. P. Phillips (Ed.), Derrida today: Current perspectives in Derrida studies (pp. 87–110). Cambridge: Polity Press.

    Google Scholar 

  2. Amsler, M. & Shore, C. (2017). Responsibilisation and leadership in the neoliberal university: A New Zealand perspective. Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education, 38, 123–137.

    Google Scholar 

  3. Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership [AITSL]. (2015). Australian professional standard for principals and the leadership profiles. Retrieved from Accessed 10 Sep 2018

  4. Bakhtin, M. M. (1984). Rabelais and his world. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  5. Beausoleil, E. (2015). Embodying an ethics of response-ability. Borderlands Ejournal, 14(2). Retrieved April 15, 2018, from

  6. Bourdieu, P. (1998). Acts of resistance: Against the new myths of our time. (trans: Nice, R.). Cambridge: Polity Press.

  7. Brooks, D. (2013). Opinion: What data can’t do. Retrieved August 8, 2018, from

  8. Brown, W. (2015). Undoing the demos: Neoliberalism’s stealth revolution. Brooklyn, NY: Zone Books.

    Google Scholar 

  9. Centre for Educational Statistics and Evaluation [CESE]. (n.d.-a). About CESE. Retrieved September 15, 2018, from

  10. Centre for Educational Statistics and Evaluation [CESE]. (n.d.-b). Retrieved September 15, 2018, from

  11. Centre for Educational Statistics and Evaluation [CESE]. (n.d.-c). Professional learning clearinghouse: How we use evidence. Retrieved September 7, 2018, from

  12. Centre for Educational Statistics and Evaluation [CESE]. (2015). Effective leadership: Learning curve issue 10. Retrieved September 20, 2018, from

  13. Centre for Education Statistics and Evaluation [CESE]. (2018a). Creating a culture of excellence: Overview paper. NSW Department of Education.

  14. Centre for Educational Statistics and Evaluation [CESE]. (2018b). Creating a culture of excellence: Sefton High School. NSW Department of Education. Retrieved September 10, 2018 from

  15. DeMitchell, T.A. (2015). Does wearing a school uniform improve student behaviour? The conversation. Retrieved March 3, 2018 from

  16. Derrida, J. (1987). Pysche: Inventions of the other. In Balibar, E., Rajchman, J., & Boyman, A. (2011). French philosophy since 1945: Problems, concepts, inventions (Postwar French Thought, Volume IV) (pp. 182–185). New York and London: The New Press.

  17. Derrida, J. (1997a). Limited Inc. Evanston: Northwestern University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  18. Derrida, J. (1997b). Of Grammatology (trans: Spivak, G.). Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press.

  19. Derrida, J. (2006). Specters of Marx: The state of the debt, the work of mourning and the new international. (trans: Kamuf, P.). New York: Routledge Classics.

  20. Eacott, S. (2010). New look leaders or a new look at leadership? International Journal of Educational Management, 25(2), 124–143.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  21. English, F. (2005). Educational leadership for sale: Social justice, the ISLLC standards, and the corporate assault on public schools. In Creighton, T., Harris, S., & Coleman, J. (Eds.), Crediting the past, challenging the present, creating the future (pp. 83–106). Sam Houston State University: National Council of Professors of Educational Administration. Retrieved January 15, 2019 from;jsessionid=D0EEDEE5FCDEFB5FCC622786880F82E4?doi=

  22. Kenway, J. (2008). The ghosts of the school curriculum: past, present and future: Radford lecture, Fremantle, Australia. Australian Educational Researcher, 35(2), 1–13.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  23. Lachmann, R. (2004). Rhetoric, the dialogical principle and the fantastic in Bakhtin’s thought. In F. Bostad, C. Brandist, L. S. Evensen, & H. C. Faber (Eds.), Bakhtinian perspectives on language and culture: Meaning in language, art and new media (pp. 46–64). Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

    Google Scholar 

  24. Lucy, N. (2004). A Derrida dictionary. Oxford: Blackwell.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  25. McKnight, L., & Whitburn, B. (2018). Seven reasons to question the hegemony of visible learning. Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  26. Mockler, N. (2011). Beyond ‘what works’: Understanding teacher identity as a practical and political tool. Teachers and Teaching, 17(5), 517–528.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  27. Northern, S. (2011). School uniform does not improve results-discuss. The guardian. Retrieved March 3, 2018, from

  28. NSW Department of Education and Communities. (2014). School excellence framework. Retrieved September 15, 2018, from

  29. NSW Department of Education. (2016). Performance and development framework for principals, executives and teachers in NSW public schools. Retrieved September 5, 2018, from

  30. NSW Department of Education. (2017). School excellence framework—Version 2. Retrieved July 5, 2018, from

  31. NSW Education Standards Authority. (2014/2018). Australian professional standards for teachers. Retrieved July 6, 2018, from

  32. Roth.-W.M., (2005). Auto/biography and auto/ethnography: Finding the generalized other in the self. In W.-M. Roth (Ed.), Auto/biography and auto/ethnography: Praxis of research method (pp. 3–16). Rotterdam & Taipei: Sense Publishers.

    Google Scholar 

  33. Sidorkin, A. M. (1999). Beyond discourse: Education, the self, and dialogue. Albany: State University of New York Press.

    Google Scholar 

  34. Thomas, G. (2016). After the gold rush: Questioning the “gold standard” and reappraising the status of experiment and randomised controlled trials in education. Harvard Educational Review, 86(3), 390–411.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  35. Weber, M. (2013). Marketing—Strategy, tracking and evaluation! Retrieved July 7, 2018, from

  36. White, S., Nuttall, J., Down, B., Shore, S., Woods, A., Mills, M., & Bussey, K. (2018). Strengthening a research-rich teaching profession for Australia. Australian Teacher Education Association (ATEA), Canberra; Australian Association for Research in Education (AARE), Melbourne; Australian Council of Deans of Education, (ACDE) Canberra.

  37. Wiliam, D. (2002). Linking research and practice: Knowledge transfer or knowledge creation? In Proceedings of the annual meeting [of the] North American chapter of the international group for the psychology of Mathematics education (24th, Athens, GA, October 26–29). Retrieved September 8, 2018, from

  38. Žižek, S. (2014). Event: Philosophy in transit. London: Penguin Books.

    Google Scholar 

Download references

Author information



Corresponding author

Correspondence to Mark Howie.

Additional information

Publisher's Note

Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Howie, M. In ‘obey’-ance: one principal’s critically reflexive engagement with research in a culture of compliance. Aust. Educ. Res. 47, 679–692 (2020).

Download citation


  • Spectrality
  • Hauntology
  • Leadership
  • Standards
  • Moral purpose
  • Neoliberalism