Productive disciplinary engagement (PDE) and expansive framing are two closely related frameworks for understanding and supporting education. These frameworks emerged from the research of the cognitive scientist Randi Engle (1967–2012) and colleagues. PDE was introduced in 2002 to describe a particularly noteworthy classroom discussion that was recorded in a reform-oriented elementary science classroom. PDE characterizes student engagement in the form of discourse that concerns the academic discipline at hand. Such disciplinary engagement is presumed to be productive when it asks disciplinary questions, clarifies disciplinary misunderstanding, and serves other functions that are known to support disciplinary learning. Engle and her co-author advanced a set of “guiding principles” for supporting PDE. These principles guide educators toward providing instruction and resources that help students (a) “problematize” disciplinary knowledge from their own perspectives; (b) accept a share of authority to resolve the disciplinary problems or questions that result; and (c) hold themselves and each other accountable for appropriately using the language and ideas of the discipline.
In 2006, Engle further explored the data from her 2002 study to consider how that learning had been “framed.” She introduced the label “expansive framing” in an experimental study published in 2011 and further elaborated that theory in a paper published in 2012. Expansive framing offers additional educational principles for supporting PDE by helping teachers “position” students as authors (rather than consumers) of disciplinary knowledge. Expansive framing does this by insistently pushing each student to: (a) make connections with people, places, topics, and times beyond the boundaries of the assignment and/or course; and (b) see themselves as active participants in a broader intellectual conversation that extends over space and time.
Engle’s characterization of engagement as PDE and the design principles for supporting PDE and expansive framing are some of the most useful guidelines for education to emerge from the theory of situated cognition that emerged in the 1980s. Situative theories of knowing and learning are less prescriptive for education than the behaviorist theories that dominated through the 1970s or the information processing and constructivist theories that became influential after the so-called “cognitive revolution” in the 1970s. Situative theories pay particular attention to the social and cultural contexts where learning takes place as well as the social and cultural contexts where that learning might later be used. This is what cognitive scientists call “transfer.” Engle and others argue that PDE and expansive framing can support “generative” learning that transfers readily and widely to new contexts. This article reviews the most influential experimental and theoretical publications by Engle and colleagues regarding PDE and expansive framing and summarizes the research by others who have taken up these frameworks.