Search this site
Other stuff

All banner artwork by Brady Johnson, college student and (semi-) starving artist.

My latest books:


        Available now

       Available Now

Available now 

My book Machines are the easy part; people are the hard part is now available as a free download at Lulu.

 The Blue Skunk Page on Facebook


EdTech Update




« Intellectual Freedom 101 | Main | The president on standards »

Engage or entertain?

Engage: to hold the attention of : to induce to participate

Entertain: to provide entertainment [amusement or diversion provided especially by performers]

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

In Tuesday night's PBS show, Growing Up Online* (an episode of Frontline) a classroom teacher lamented that given the amount of time kids are spending on line that they now need to be entertained if you want their attention. It's not an uncommon complaint.

But I don't believe it is a valid one. The terms "entertain" and "engage" are being used synonymously. There are important distinctions. 

  • 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 the reader/watcher/listener; engagement experiences most often relate directly to the learner.
  • Entertainment is an escape from problems; engagement involves solving problems.
  • Entertainment results through the creativity of others; engagement asks for creativity on the part of the learner.
  • Perhaps the greatest distinction is that entertain is often passive, whereas engagment is active or interactive.

I am not convinced that kids need constant entertainment anymore that any of us do. But they do demand, and should, learning that is engaging.

Lolipop-the-Clown.jpgJust a few random thoughts early this morning as I finish preparing for the three workshops I am giving today at Indiana's ICE conference [today's educators are as demanding as any Net Gen student], I hope I remember the distinction myself.

Is there a difference between entertaining and engaging the learner? How do you make the distinction? 

 * I thought the Frontline program was excellent and balanced. I especially appreciated experts like Anne Collier and Danah Boyd rather than some spooky guy from the FBI. Some good parenting lessons in it as well.

EmailEmail Article to Friend

Reader Comments (12)

Here is a case where editing has an impact on the viewers experience. Reading through the interviews with the teachers on the PBS site I found them to be more balanced than the Frontline piece showed. I know there is only an hour, but truly you could spend an hour just on that concept alone. There were some fairly disturbing things in that piece beyond the pro-ana, lingerie posing 14 yr old, etc. Like the digital divide between information literate and technical literate students which was only hinted at by the history teachers concept of cheating. In his interview he describes his position a little better. But that is me as an educator who noticed that. Oh and the impact of filming in only one community that was of a certain socio-economic class. Still I am obviously still mulling it over, so it had some impact, and it was balanced. So kudos for that.

January 24, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterMary Ann Harlan


Thank you for assuaging my guilt about not being "entertaining" enough with my students as a music teacher. I've blogged similar sentiments about this where the words "entertainment" vs "engagement" are replaced with "popular culture" vs. "traditional and high culture"- Thank you for this important distinction.

January 24, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterKen

Hi Mary Ann,

I appreciate your perspective. I may have been overly favorable since I had been expecting another 'To Catch a Predator" type treatment. The points you make are excellent and I hope the PBS website gets a lot of traffic.

All the very best,


January 24, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterDoug Johnson

Hi Ken,

Your blog post was very interesting. Not knowing much about music (or culture), I learned from it.

Thanks for sharing it with others,

All the best,


January 24, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterDoug Johnson

I'm encouraged to read comments such as Mary Ann's. Despite three lengthy meeting with the producers, and an hour-long interview, out discussion concerning technology and education was reduced to just a couple comments concerning entertainment and cheating. I guess I wasn't used to sitting in front of a tanning bed-sized bank of lights and being told to answer questions in a sort of special "interview-speak". Without a chance to reflect as I can when I write, I did not parse my words well.

Nonetheless, I use a fair amount of media in my classroom because (1) it creates an atmosphere in the room that compliments the historical era we are studying (2) it never fails to create student interest and (3) I can.

Some teachers hang posters and decorate bulletin boards, I show videos, play music and put decorate the class website with pictures and historical quotes. It does not take me any longer to do this than it does to tape some scholastic poster (which the student has already seen in three other classrooms) to the wall. The videos never take the place of instructional time, they play as students walk in the room. Picture a class full of 9th graders, in their seats, eyes riveted to the screen and ready to go when the bells rings. All I did was play the credit sequence of "the Kingdom" and they know the subject of the lesson, have a few questions about it already and want to learn more.

As for images, music and video during class - that's the raw material of history. Math has equations, chemistry has scientific principles, history has paintings of Napoleon, Carson Robinson's "We're gonna have to slap that dirty little jap" and Nazi propaganda posters. Because of technology I can show student maps of the Cholera outbreak in London in 1854, is that entertainment?

Sure this can be labeled "entertainment', but you're right, it should be labeled "engagement".

January 25, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterSteve

Hi Steve,

Thanks so much for the follow-up post. I did a little detective work and found your blog post about the show as well and am sharing it here since I think it is insightful:

I appreciate your view. I hope I did not seem overly critical of your “entertainment” comment. I hear it often from teachers during workshops I give about “Net Gen” kids and I try to turn the discussion to something positive by discussing entertainment and engagement and how they are related.

You sound like a terrific teacher and I just subscribed to your blog, infinitude!

All the very best,


January 25, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterDoug Johnson

Education in entertainment is all over the place, fresh minds in learning are great.

January 29, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterEducational Entertainment

Hi there,
Quite a few months on, I've found this blog. I'm a Year 12 student in Australia, currently writing an essay, in which I have to define and explore (though its a small part) the difference between engagement and entertainment in documentary film. Your blog helped in that it articulated thoughts I was having in a way I perhaps, could not have. So thankyou!

April 23, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterKira

Hi Kira,

Thanks for the comment. Always nice to know one has been helpful. Good luck with the essay.



April 24, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterDoug Johnson

Hi Doug,

I was introduced to your blog by two people -- a teacher-librarian colleague and a library endorsement program instructor -- in the past two weeks. I am enjoying your posts, and appreciate the thoughtful insights balanced with humor.

The concept of entertainment vs. engagement is interesting. I strive to engage my students, to have them actively involved so they think and respond with understanding. It does often take some entertainment to initially catch their attention and draw them in, and ultimately, engagement is my goal.

With the technology that surrounds us, there are a variety of forms of entertainment at our fingertips! My challenge will be to use the entertainmnet to take the learning deeper with my students.

I'm looking forward to reading more of your posts!


June 24, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterCeCe

Thanks, CeCe.


June 25, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterDoug Johnson

This web site is actually truly intriguing. You carry right up several terrific issues concerning your content. The idea is my own new listed here within this particular web site and so excellent work.

May 3, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterVoice Over Studio

PostPost a New Comment

Enter your information below to add a new comment.

My response is on my own website »
Author Email (optional):
Author URL (optional):
Some HTML allowed: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <code> <em> <i> <strike> <strong>