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Doug Johnson's Tech Proof

Engage or Entertain?


It's a fallacy to believe that today's students are unhappy unless they are entertained.

In the PBS FRONTLINE show Growing Up Online,* a classroom teacher lamented that because of the amount of time kids spend online, they now need to be entertained if you want to hold their attention. It's not an uncommon complaint. I hear it often during workshops when I ask teachers to list some qualities of today's learner.

But I don't believe it is a valid complaint. The terms "entertain" and "engage" are being confused. There are important distinctions. The dictionary definitions hint at some:

Engage: to hold the attention of; to induce to participate
Entertain: to provide entertainment (amusement or diversion provided especially by performers)

Merriam-Webster Online

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In learning environments, entertainment and engagement look quite different, and it's easy to tell them apart:

  • Entertainment's primary purpose is to create an enjoyable experience; engagement's primary purpose is to focus attention so learning occurs.
  • Entertainment is ephemeral, often frivolous; engagement creates long-lasting results and deals with important issues.
  • Entertainment needs have little relevance to the reader/watcher/listener; engaging experiences most often relate directly to the learner.
  • Entertainment is an escape from problems; engagement involves solving problems. When problems are a part of entertainment, the solution is given; when problems are a part of an engaging experience, the learner supplies the solution.
  • Entertainment results through the creativity of others; engagement asks for creativity on the part of the learner.
  • Perhaps the greatest distinction is that entertainment is often passive, whereas engagement is active or interactive.

I am not convinced that today's kids need constant entertainment any more or less than any of us do. But they are more insistent on learning that is engaging.

When my teenage son disappeared for hours on end, it was not to watch television (a passive form of entertainment), but to play video games, chat, and interact with Internet sites (active forms of engagement). And he is typical -- today's students are watching less television -- or they're multi-tasking while the tube is on. Peter Grunwald, in Children, Families, and the Internet (2003), reported that 13-to-17-year-olds average 3.1 hours a day watching TV and 3.5 hours with digital media. Passive viewing is losing ground to more interactive experiences. Imagine that.

Remember that there is a difference between entertaining and engaging the learner. We all need to make the distinction. And we need to make engagement the focus of our instructional strategy improvements. Today's students are more demanding, but we need to ask ourselves carefully what they really are insisting on in their classrooms.

* I thought the Frontline program was excellent and balanced. I especially appreciated experts like Anne Collier and Danah Boyd rather than some spooky guys from the FBI. The entire program can be viewed online at

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Updated 04/16/2012