Why Hasn’t Creative Play Equalized Educational Opportunity?

How racism defines which students are seen as creative, and which students are seen as threats

J. Nathan Matias
7 min readNov 3, 2020
LEGO WeDo. Photo by Noratheone

Even as youth creativity flowers online, technologies of play have become caught up in society’s deep divisions, often reinforcing them. How does that happen?

Speaking today at the Cornell Department of Communication is Matt Rafalow (@mrafalow), a sociologist, researcher at Google, and a visiting scholar at UC Berkeley’s Center for Science, Technology, Medicine & Society. Before working at Google, Matt was an ethnographer for many years with the Connected Learning Research Network. Matt has also been a researcher at Yahoo! Labs and GovLab. He is author of the new book Digital Divisions: How Schools Create Inequality in the Tech Era, published by the University of Chicago Press.

As a sociologist, Matt studies sociology and digital technology. He currently works at YouTube, where he leads research on livestreaming. More broadly as a sociologist, Matt studies sociology and digital technology, which is how he got interested in technologies of play.

Is Technology the Great Equalizer in Education?

For many years, thought leaders presented digital technology as a great equalizer- something that would broaden access and opportunities for young people. But then as a graduate student in 2015, Matt learned about the story of Ahmed Mohamed. Ahmed tinkered with technology to create a digital clock. When Ahmed brought his clock to school to impress his teachers, they had him arrested- fearing that he had made a bomb.

Why was it that Ahmed was treated as a terrorist rather than an innovator? More broadly, Matt asks why there aren’t more leaders of color in the tech sector, where most executives are white men? And how might schools be part of that story?

Bourdieu and the school pipeline for upward mobility

How would a sociologist make sense of this? Matt tells us about Bourdieu’s theories of society. Think about a child as they grow up in their family. They learn all sorts of skills and habits from their parents as part of their family culture. Then, when students show up at schools, they will display those habits.

schools reproduce the status quo through “discipline” — institutional processes that internalize norms in students about their creative worth and job prospects

At school, teachers reward certain kinds of displays of habits and skills. As a result, those habits and skills provide students with “cultural resources” that enable them to get ahead. Students who come from wealthier backgrounds are able to bring more of those resources to school, and consequently get more out of the school experience.

What could change this situation of inequality? One option, sociologists have proposed, would be to introduce new opportunities for developing cultural resources that expand opportunities. And that’s what many digital technology designers hoped might happen with gaming and educational technology: if kids show up at school with similar digital know-how, will that give working class children a leg up?

To answer the question, Matt tells us, we need to understand how schools reproduce the status quo through “discipline” — institutional processes that internalize norms in students about their creative worth and job prospects. Past scholars (Bowles and Gintis, Carter, Foucault, Lewis, McDonough) have typically thought about this in terms of class — lower class students are socialized to become workers, CEO’s childrens are socialized to become leaders.

How do race and ethnicity shape how teachers make sense of play and discipline students to think about themselves and their futures? Would they treat play by Black and Latinx students in the same way as affluent white students? That’s what Matt set out to study in the research for this book.

How Schools and Teachers Interpret Youth Play

To study these questions, Matt did fieldwork in three tech-focused schools, mostly with white teacher populations, but which had different student demographics. Kids in each school all had access to digital technology, they learned how to use digital tech from their peers, and they served as the “techie of the family.”

Students in the studies learned many skills by engaging in play online. First, they learned online communication. To play online, they needed to learn social media, text messages, online collaboration tools, and event planning. They also learned about digital production, which ranged from media-making and world-building to jailbreaking devices. Students at each school, no matter their ethnicity/race/gender, all had the same baseline of digital skills.

Digital Play as Essential, Threatening, or Irrelevant to Learning

What happened when students brought their skills into school? Consider for example how teachers thought about games like Minecraft. At the wealthy, white school, teachers saw these play-related digital skills as essential to school. Over and over in interviews, Matt heard teachers talk about students as “Steve Jobs potentials.” In one history class, the teacher saw that one student was using Minecraft: “Is that a pyramid? Did you build that?” The student paused the class by clapping their hands and inviting other students to recognize the creativity of that student’s work.

In the school that served largely middle-class, Asian American students, teachers saw digital skills as threatening to the school. The teacher said, “I feel bad for our kids here… they’re taught to do anything well, and that’s not fair to other students.” Another teacher said “these Asian kids are so good at using technology that they hack our online system.” Teachers largely saw student play as threatening, something that presented a risk of cheating to get ahead. Students were given detentions, sent to the principal’s office, and in some cases suspended. Teachers introduced surveillance software, monitored student digital connections, and even printed out students’ text messages to discipline them. In this context, digital play and creativity was not converted it into cultural capital.

At the working class school for Black and Latinx students, teachers saw digital skills from play as irrelevant to school. A teacher reported that “The kids we teach, if we are being realistic, they need skills for hands-on jobs… If they learn technology, it’s for that purpose.” One teacher said, “They need to know a different set of skills than it used to be in factories. They need basic skills in using computers…” Thinking of themselves almost like parents, teachers focused on basic skills that would help them get a factory job. The things students learned from friends in digital communication and production were seen as rewards and things they could do after school and (in the future) after work.

Even when students were using the digital learning platform Scratch, teachers would tell students that the creative aspects of the tool (like remixing code or adding art) would not add to their grade. In other aspects of their education, teachers never gave students credit or rewards for creating new media. So students never gained support for the perspective that their creativity had worth.

How do different teacher responses influence student participation online?

At the wealthy schools, students were encouraged to see their online activity as an important profile-building activity for their careers. So they became active online, creating public presences for teachers, colleges, and future job prospects. At the middle-class school, students were told that online participation was a risk. So they hid their activity online, leading to the erasure of their work online. At the lower-income school, students were told that play is irrelevant to achievement. So they created very public digital footprints that were designed for friends and family, and which employers and colleges might not see favorably.

So Does Technology Access Equalize Opportunities?

Matt tells us that whether or not students developed skills/values/habits from their habits, the same displays are unequally rewarded by teachers. Although sociologists would say that the differences in cultural resources shape student outcomes- that’s not true.

Even when increasing the cultural resources that students bring into the classroom, Matt tells us that we need to focus on the ways that schools and teachers reinforce and reproduce inequality through the way they treat student creativity.

In today’s talk, Matt shared just one finding from his book. You can learn more by checking it out the book Digital Divisions: How Schools Create Inequality in the Tech Era.

To learn more, see Matt Rafalow’s new book: Digital Divisions: How Schools Create Inequality in the Tech Era



J. Nathan Matias

Citizen social science to improve digital life & hold tech accountable. Assistant Prof, Cornell. citizensandtech.org Prev: Princeton, MIT. Guatemalan-American