Dr. Barton, Mrs. Dutt, Mr. Ruddock, these are the names of my teachers in secondary school that will stay with me for my entire life. Why? One striking thing made all these teachers stand out: They were funny. Where the majority of my teachers during school were decent, serious people, (who I can’t remember) these funny teachers made a big impact on my life.I learnt more in their classes, I felt like they were more open to questions, and I still keep in touch with them.
As a professional trainer who also daps into the realm of improvisational comedy I often think about the connections between humour and pedagogy. I am constantly amazed at the ability of laughter to bring people together and facilitate learning. Many studies have been performed over the years on laughter in the classroom and most have come up with the same results: Humour promotes understanding. Although there are several different forms of humour, I believe that simply making people laugh in the classroom carries with it several components that promote a learning environment.
Firstly, laughter lowers inhibitions for the students and consequently allows them to relate to the teacher more. Before I knew my Chemistry teacher Mr. Barton, I saw him in our school talent show reciting jokes about his own people: the Irish. I remember thinking that this was a man whose class I wanted to be in because he knew how to laugh at himself. His candid, self-depreciating jokes showed he had a certain humility and approachability.
Barton’s class was not easy, but his jokes, however cheesy, brought a certain charm to the atmosphere. His humour bred a certain rapport which made you want to listen to him. Mr. Barton still comes and visits my wife and me when he is in New Delhi.
Researchers have identified that educators who use humour in their instruction are more positively rated by their peers and their students. Tel Aviv University Professor of Psychology Avner Ziv has carried out extensive studies on how humour positively affects the learning environment. He claims that humour can significantly increase recall. As a history student humour always made me remember stories. During the American Independence movement the British parliamentarian William Wilberforce famously quipped about the opposition’s manipulation of statistics: “If he calls a quarter half, I’d hate to be his wife and share half his bed”. The reference alludes to the historical fact that 25% of Americans at the time were still loyal to British rule during the revolutionary war, a fact that still remains with me today.
Interestingly, humour can be also effectively used in classroom discipline. Rather than draconian methods of violence towards students, which have always proven to be more hindering than helpful, creative punishments can both be corrective and educational. Once when I had not done my homework my teacher told me that I had to be sent for detention. I politely asked the teacher if I could write a creative/ humourous essay on why I should do my homework instead. She agreed. I wrote a lengthy essay titled – “The Commonwealth, Homework, and Respect for Her Majesties Thrown”. In the essay I discussed how as responsible citizens of the commonwealth it is our obligation to complete our homework on time. The essay was a big hit. The teacher found it hilarious and actually read it to the class. Also, I had to research for the paper so it became an educational experience for me.
Much is still unknown about why we find things funny. All the research does point to one glaring fact, however: almost everywhere in the world people find it funny when you connect two dissimilar things in a seemingly non-connectable way. For example, take the standard joke: What is the difference between outlaws and in-laws…? Outlaws are wanted. We laugh because the words sound the same while the punch-line feeds cultural references about in-laws paradoxically. It’s familiar yet the reference is used in a completely different way.
How can this be used in the classroom? Humour can be used to associate facts in paradoxical ways so that students will remember them. Some good ways of practicing this in the classroom may be to have a bulletin board where students can put funny portrayals of the subject they are studying. You could also ask students to show their understanding of a certain subject by writing down how it connects to something in their day to day life.
Many shy away from using humour in teaching because they feel they are not funny. Professor Oliver Double at the University of Kent has done significant research on this subject and has found that very few people are actually inherently funny. Rather, people learn what is funny in different contexts and as they practice it they develop their ability to make others laugh.
In the classroom it is important for teachers to learn why their students laugh and to use that to enhance learning. That is not a joke.