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FREE Resources  //  Learning : Too Serious to be Taken Seriously

Using Humour as a Classroom Tool

Recent studies of humour indicate its efficacy as a coping mechanism in situations of extreme stress (such as Ofsted inspections !). The putative effects of humour have long been understood and its increased therapeutic use in healthcare contexts can be viewed as a measure of its perceived importance. In the context of hospitals and other related environments humour functions as an emotional scaffold for both patients and staff : put simply, it relaxes people in negative circumstances.

Intensification of workload is a central feature of the educational world and stress is a natural reaction to this intensification. Humour is therefore a necessary coping mechanism for staff; it is also a classroom prerequisite for maximising learning. It is the latter of these uses of humour which forms the focus of this essay.

In 1996 Daniel Goleman wrote

‘When people who are prone to anxiety are asked to perform a cognitive task----[anxiety] inhibits performance’ *1

If, as educators, we seek to create an environment which maximises learning then anxiety reduction and the resultant increase in pupil performance of cognitive tasks should be a goal of all classroom teachers. Alistair Smith (1996) *2 rightly located anxiety - reduction as one of the key conditions in the Pre - stage of the Accelerated Learning Cycle,

‘the learner must be free from anxiety or stress and be challenged’

Thus, we cannot separate emotional scaffolding and cognitive support ; the two are inter - related. When the emotional climate of the classroom is ‘correct’ there will be a resultant rise in pupil performance. Humour , therefore, is an essential element of classroom climate - control !

So, what evidence supports the contention that serious consideration, (no pun intended !), needs to be given to the use of humour as an educative tool. A recent study of the effects of humour on (job) performance (conducted by John Gosnik and Bruce Arolico) focussed on more than 300 employees of a leading Canadian financial institution. The study demonstrated that the employees who were the best performers had managers who raised performance through transformational leadership (a key component of which is humour). The situation should not differ in a school environment - transformational teachers utilising humour will raise the performance levels of pupils far quicker than those who do not make use of it.

Studies also exist which centre on students. One such study , located at St. Louis Community College, considered the characteristics which students associated with excellent teaching. Humour was one of the top 5 characteristics. Interestingly the number of occasions, on which humour is referred to by people interviewed for ‘My Best Teacher’ column in the Times Educational Supplement , is significantly high.

It is true that humour can have negative connotations ; it can be used to ridicule ; it can be a vehicle for prejudice , but also it can be used to facilitate a broad range of beneficial effects :-

  • Humour leads to increased attentiveness – something television producers have not ignored !
  • Humour contributes to making learning ‘fun’ and having ‘fun’ is an undoubted motivator.
  • Humour facilitates a relaxed (stress-free ) classroom environment and the brain works better in a state of relaxed alertness. (Humour is a stress moderator)
  • Fear blocks ‘working memory’ and, as fear dissipates when we are amused, our memory functions more effectively in an environment in which humour features.
  • Humour (but not sarcasm !) is effective as part of classroom behaviour modification - it aids conflict resolution.
  • Humour is a key communication tool - it increases group cohesion.

With such a wealth of positive attributes why doesn’t humour feature regularly in teacher training, INSET provision etc ? Perhaps it relates to the erroneous perception that humour is part of a ‘dumbing down’ of education. Nothing could be further from the truth : when using humour we shift the classroom focus from coverage (what pupils cover does not necessarily equate to what they remember !) to acquisition. Recognising that acquisition - centred learning is a pedagogical imperative certainly isn’t symptomatic of a ‘dumbed - down’ curriculum. Effective teachers have long used humour as an educative tool and more formal consideration of it is not a new thing. An article entitled ‘Place of Humour in the Curriculum’ appeared, over 60 years ago, in the ‘Journal of Experimental Education’ (Brumbaugh *3) and in the 1970’s M.D.Baughman wrote a ‘Handbook of Humor in Education *4.

In this, the 21st Century, ‘change’ is a feature of everyone’s life. For the pupils , now in our schools, it will be a feature of everyday existence. The Royal Society of Arts recently published a document *5 which indicated that a major life skill for our new century is the ability to cope with change. Change can, undoubtedly, be stressful and as N.F.Dixon (1980) *6 indicated, humour can be used as a cognitive alternative to stress.

In this sense humour is doubly useful - firstly, as a part of an armoury of effective teaching techniques (as already discussed) and secondly as a method of reducing pupil stress and helping them to take a playful perspective on stressful situations, thereby reducing its possible negative emotional responses. Mannell and McMahon (1982) *7 point out how humour can function as a brief ‘play - activity’ which can be ‘snatched’ at any point in the day. They indicate that the link between ‘humour as a play activity’ and mental health and well being.

It is beyond the scope of this article to fully explore the biopsychosocial effects of humour but we can conclude that humour , in an educational context, serves two key purposes :

  1. It is an indispensible teaching tool and aid to learning.
  2. It is a life skill which helps pupils to deal with change (and its attendant anxiety).

Having established the benefits of humour in the classroom it remains for us to consider practical methods of ensuring that we maximise opportunities for humour. The following is not intended as an exhaustive list of humour - maximising strategies ; it does, however, offer a starting point for the classroom teacher -

    • When using text try ‘Read in the style of----‘ as a method of encouraging active reading e.g. ‘Read in the style of an angry detective’ ; ‘Read in the style of an overly dramatic person’. The more unusual the choice of character the greater the impact !
    • Use terminology which pupils will recognise as signifying ‘fun’ e.g. ‘The comma game’ : if pupils perceive an activity as a ‘game’ then they are more likely to be receptive to it.
    • If class (or group) attention wanders ‘dip into’ a bank of humorous (but educationally valid) ‘Time - out games’. It is better to refocus attention in this way than to continue with a lesson which becomes increasingly ineffective.
    • A good Key Stage 2 example is ‘The Initials Game’ in which descriptions of pupils are invented which match the initials of that pupil’s name e.g. Henry Weir - Hard worker Gillian Spencer - Good speller
    • Use non - conforming materials whenever possible ! Most Y6 pupils can quote ‘She whipped a pistol from her knickers’ when asked to remember something written by Roald Dahl . (Ensure however that the material is not too risqué !)
    • Try to use published materials that have a humorous element ; cartoon - like presentation can be particularly effective.
    • When something needs to remembered, such as a subject specific word, a fact etc invent a humorous narrative in which the object/date/fact features centrally. Encourage the pupils to do the same.

In conclusion, if we are to seriously consider methods of making learning more effective then we need to take seriously the benefits of applying humour in the classroom.Learning is, pardoxically, too serious to be taken seriously, a comment which would appear to be nonsensical if we didn’t acknowledge the critical importance of humour in our classrooms. Perhaps ‘edutainment’ should cease to be a derisory term ; perhaps it is time for us to take humour seriously.

Alan Peat May 2001


    *1 Goleman, Daniel Emotional Intelligence - Why it Matters More than IQ. (Bloomsbury 1996)

    *2 Smith, Alistair Accelerated Learning in the Classroom. (Network Educational Press Ltd 1996)

    *3 Brumbaugh , F Place of Humor in the Curriculum . (Journal of Experimental Education, 8, 403 - 409, 1940)

    *4 Baughman , M. D. Handbook of Humor in Education. (Parker Publishing Company, West Nyack, 1974)

    *5 Royal Society of Arts Redefining Schooling in the Twenty First Century (R.S.A. 1999)

    *6 Dixon, N.F. Humor ; a Cognitive Alternative to Stress ? In I. G. Sarason & C.D. Spielberger (Eds), Stress and Anxiety, 7, 281 - 289 Washington D.C. : Hemisphere 1980.

    *7 Mannell, R.C. & McMahon, L Humor as play : its relationship to psychological well - being during the course of a day. (Leisure Sciences , 5, 143 - 155, 1982)