*This* is Learning: How Perceptions of Learning Relevance Matter for Student Success

December 20, 2013

PROJECTS: Leveling Up



This is the first of a series of posts by the authors on learning and social fields. They draw on multiple research cases to articulate how different contexts determine valued forms of learning.

Parent: “I think [Fashion Camp] teaches in an educational way. Is it academic or is it educational? That’s two different things. No, it’s probably not academic from a teacher’s standpoint…I believe 100% of it is educational, but I don’t believe it’s academic.”

Interviewer: “So educational meaning they learn things, but they’re not necessarily…”

Parent: “…that are applied, that are real life…in schools that takes a back seat all the time. I don’t have time to do the life skills anymore.”

In the above excerpt, a parent of a Fashion Camp student and middle school teacher by trade argues that she does not see her daughter’s lessons at the camp as academic (school sanctioned) learning. Although the camp’s mission, as well as our own analysis of camp activities, articulate the various types of learning goals of the program (including “academic” skills like math and design), she separates “applied,” “real life” skills as non-academic or not school relevant. As the principles of the connected learning framework become important to the design of learning spaces, it becomes even more imperative to understand what is (and is not) considered valued learning to the youth, adults, and educators involved in these spaces. Our work shows examples of how certain out of school activities should count as valued forms of learning, but we have yet to interrogate how the institutionalization process itself can be adapted and better understood within digitally mediated learning environments that cross institutional domains (school, family, peer group, neighborhood, economy, etc.).

In this post series, we draw on sociological theory to flesh out the beginnings of our idea that what “counts” as learning is determined by the social field, or the larger social context in which the activity is embedded. Students, parents, and teachers are only able to see learning activities as valued forms of learning if they are linked to educational institutions in clear ways. If, however, the activity is considered in an interest area deemed irrelevant to school, than otherwise learning-relevant practices are only seen as not learning.

French sociologists Pierre Bourdieu theorized that taken for granted social arrangements in society determine what types of behavior are deemed valuable or not. These arrangements, which he terms “social fields,” are contexts where social relations among large groups of people develop dominant sets of rules, expectations, and ways of viewing and understanding the world (Bourdieu 1984; Wacquant 2009). In the view of Bourdieuians, there exist a number of social fields in society but they are limited to key institutions, such as the field of art, politics, and education (DiMaggio 1997; Hallett 2003). Education researchers have, for example, shown that schools have pre-determined sets of expectations of students that predominantly favor middle- and upper-class students. Studies have shown that teachers reward students who exhibit behaviors encouraged by middle-class parents, such as routinely asking teachers for help. Working-class and poor students, who are raised to sit quietly in class as a form of respect, do not reap similar benefits (Calarco 2011). The educational institution, in the view of sociologists of education, is a middle-class institution — to succeed in schools effectively means to meet the expectations of middle-class culture (Lareau 2011).

In this series of posts, we extend Bourdieu’s theory of social fields to our cases:

One Direction fandom, Ksenia Korobkova

This case study focuses on learning and identity-related practices of fangirls of a popular British boyband called One Direction. Drawing on qualitative inquiry into a fanfiction community formed around the band, analysis highlights (a) the literate work fans engage in, including writing, reading, critiquing, and collaborating on multimodal texts and objects, (b) identity work performed by the fans, and (c) ways in which the literate and identity work weave together to inform participation community. This case highlights moments when young people narrated their engagement was indeed “writing” and relevant to school and moments when it was not, showcasing different framing discourses of relevance and engagement.

LittleBigPlanet 2 Player Communities, Matt Rafalow

Matt’s case illustrates how players of LittleBigPlanet 2, a craft-oriented Playstation 3 game, view their designs as educational because they see their design work in math and programming as school sanctioned. He finds that players occasionally view gaming activities as overlapping with learning and schools because of the clear link between math/logic tasks and school work.

Fashion Camp, Matt Rafalow

In this case, members of a Southern California-based fashion camp hone their skills in fashion design and learn math, fashion history, and technical skills for sewing. Yet, parents and students at the camp largely see the learning activities as “practical” or “applied” rather than academic or relevant to school.

Open Learners, Luka Carfagna

Luka’s case follows 18-34 year old open learners who negotiate “learning to learn” in de-institutionalized learning environments while simultaneously “learning to belong” in entrepreneurial career paths.  While voicing their frustrations with learning in traditional higher education, these learners narrate their processes of self-discovery in an open context as transformative regardless of tangible evidence of economic or academic impact in their lives.

Latino/Hispanic youth, digital video practices and learning identities, Andres Lombana Bermudez

Andres’s case focuses on three Mexican-origin high school teens from working-class households that articulate learning identities as they participate in a digital video after school program. In contrast to their disengagement with formal school work, these teens are highly motivated by the practices they develop in the after school space and by their participation in several hands-on projects where they exercise their creative agency. However, although they are able to develop strong learning identities in relation to filmmaking and the creative arts while participating in the after school program, these youth struggle with connecting their media practices to post-secondary careers and future opportunities.

Learning through narrating possible futures, Adam York, Emily Price, Ashley Cartun, Ben Kirshner, and William Penuel

For this project a collaborative team of adult and youth researchers conducted a multi-site ethnography of six youth connected learning environments (CLE). This analysis highlights the important role of narration in the learning process. Findings suggest that these sites provide a supportive context for young people to share ideas and receive feedback as they attempt to narrate possible social futures, and that participation in the CLE was influential in how they learned to describe themselves, their projected pathways, and interest development.

We find that the social field in which the activity exists determines whether or not participants see their work as valued (school sanctioned) learning or not. Moreover, while we find that participants’ perceptions of their work as learning can be shaped by the social field of education, the interest and activity does not necessarily exist within the education institution. In fact, a number of the activities from our cases exist completely out of the school environment. Ultimately, we suggest that we broaden the definition of the social field to be inclusive of not only institutions (like educational institutions) but also connected learning environments themselves. Peer participants define and propagate their own definitions of learning relevance, or what counts as “leveling up,” in the bounded spaces where they pursue their interest-driven activities. These peer-driven fields may not be as large as the institution of education, and they may, at times, overlap with schools, but they are social contexts that are sufficiently carved out by their participants to establish their own meanings, standards, and social codes.


Bourdieu, P. 1984. Distinction: a social critique of the judgment of taste. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Calarco, J. 2011. “’I Need Help!’ Social Class and Children’s Help-Seeking in Elementary School.” American Sociological Review 76(6): 862-882.

DiMaggio, P. 1997. “Culture and Cognition.” Annual Review of Sociology 23: 263-288.

Hallett, T. 2003. “Symbolic Power and Organizational Culture.” Sociological Theory 21(2): 128-149.

Lareau, A. 2011. Unequal childhoods: Class, race, and family life. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Wacquant, L. 2009. An Invitation to Reflexive Sociology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

  • borisb33

    I’m going to guess that students who feel their activities are valued or somehow fit within the social field of education probably have higher rates of success in their activity and in translating that success onto other aspects of their education and/or socioeconomic status, but is that explicitly stated anywhere in the article? It seems that the article headline implies a correlation between perception of value and student success (whatever that means) yet I don’t see it here. IS there perhaps a more in depth or full paper somewhere? Thank You

    • Matt Rafalow

      Hey boris! Thanks for your comment. This is something we hope to talk about by the end of the series of posts and in our final paper. The blog represents our thought process as we prepare the full paper, so we appreciate your comments, critiques, and suggestions, as we plan ahead. Thanks for the important point! I think our thinking right now is that student success is largely determined by the social field of education, just as you say — so if students meet the cultural expectations of schools in their day to day assessments of performance than they would do well. For example, in one of my cases — LittleBigPlanet 2 players — the youth who are game designers see productive overlap between their computer science-driven game designs and school subjects (logic, math, etc.). Some of the youth even talk about how they saw connections between their game design work and actual classes in calculus or other math subjects. To hopefully be explored further with more data in subsequent posts!