Enthrallment vs. Engagement

I spent a lot of time in Twitter education chats over the last year.  More often than not, I’ve had the pleasure of participating and learning (and moderating, once) from #edchat, #edtechchat, #edtechbridge and a range of geographic and subject matter chats and Tweeters.

Often, topics revolve around how ed tech can be optimally used, what it looks like when it doesn’t work well, what developers ought to do better, what they’re doing well and where the intersection is and should be between teachers and tech in terms of delivering instruction.  Perhaps not surprisingly due to self-selection bias, many chats feel like there is consensus on the topic of the day.  There do not often seem to be notable disagreements.

I think there is room for much more disagreement, though the nature and structure of a Twitter chat may simply make for a poor venue for such discourse.  One of the most striking disconnects that I think merits a bit more disagreement is what engagement means in the classroom.  

Engagement seems to be viewed as the hallmark of an excellent lesson or product (typically an ed tech product).  When students are engaged, good things can happen.

Outside of Twitter education chats, engagement (time spent in an app, frequency of using an app on a daily or monthly basis and retention, the number of users that continue to use your product one, seven, ten or 30 days, for example, after their first use) is a common metric for evaluating the quality of, for example, an app.  Users who spend a lot of time in an app and who repeatedly came back to an app, clearly find some kind of value in it.  They are engaging with the app.

So engagement is a good thing, right?


We ought to establish an education-specific definition of engagement.  In doing so, I’d also like to separate out what the current use of the term tends to actually describe, which is:  enthrallment (somewhere in the Twittersphere is the educator who used this term in response to one of my tweets about how engagement does not mean learning is occurring -- here’s a shout out to that educator for providing me with the term).

Enthrallment occurs when kids love a learning product but no learning of any significant value occurs.  Such products leave children floundering outside of the zone of proximal development (ZPD), even though the dopamine is on rapid release.  Define “significant value” as you will – the point is less about whether we might agree on the definition and more about the fact that the phenomenon of (enjoyable) time on task does not necessarily mean valuable learning is occurring.

If that’s enthrallment, then what’s engagement? 

One form of engagement is enthrallment, plus verifiable learning.  When students are enjoying time on task and that time contributes to delivering significant learning improvement as a result of placing students in their ZPD on skills that matter, then I think we’re talking about engagement.

Drilling down a notch, enthrallment is all about the enthrallee – the agent that causes the enthrallment is just that: an agent. Engagement, in contrast, is about the engaged individual together with what she or he is engaged with. To put it another way, enthrallment is a state of an individual, whereas engagement is a relationship between an individual and whatever the focus of the engagement is.

Enthrallment strikes me as an irresponsible waste of time in education.  The gamification of education, for example, can produce apparent engagement when really gamified products can be little more than enthrallment engines.  A student’s time on task and the joy they experience on that task can be misleading and unreliable indicators of learning.

To push past enthrallment and to ensure we don’t waste teachers’ and children’s time, verifiable, important learning outcomes must be available, ideally to both the student and the teacher (and the family). Within the context of ed tech, data dashboards are currently the vehicle of choice for communicating this data.  However, data that lives in a dashboard does not mean that that data is reflecting the learning outcomes brought on, in part, due to engagement.  The data itself, for teachers, might very well be its own unintentionally insidious form of enthrallment rather than engagement.

We ought to set the engagement bar for products and materials above the enthrallment bar.  Simply starting to ask how a company can demonstrate that its work engages rather than enthralls might be enough to start to place much welcome pressure on those of us who seek to impact student outcomes.  Collectively, we can expect and deliver more of ourselves.


There is at least one other definition of engagement to consider.  This is time on task that leads to verifiable learning.  There’s no enthrallment here.  Fun and joy aren’t part of the in-the-moment experience – they come afterwards.  Engagement in doing hard work that is not enjoyable immediately is still absolutely engagement.  

If this sounds odd, I encourage you to try an interval work out.  Not fun in the moment and demanding your full attention, completing an interval work out in which you gave it your all will absolutely leave you feeling enthralled afterwards.  The enthrallment comes later, knowing you persisted through something hard.  Learning is not always fun (perhaps it should rarely be fun – more on that in a future post).

The implication here is products and materials that do not produce in-the-moment squeals of delight may, nonetheless, deliver significant learning outcomes.  

Look for whether or not any of the products you’re using today create an engagement afterglow.  If you find you have none, you may be overlooking some outstanding offerings by requiring enthrallment rather than engagement.

Engagement, if defined and identified properly, can be an excellent metric for evaluating educational products and materials.  But if we continue to mistake enthrallment for engagement, we might as well let our students watch sitcoms during class. 

- Randy &  The BQ Team