Laughing With You – Humor in the Classroom

Students love to laugh and really enjoy the use of humor by the teacher during lessons. But, is humor just a way to liven up a boring subject, or does it have a positive impact on learning? Brain research and survey data is showing that humor can improve student engagement and confidence.

To begin, we should look at what is humor?

This is a tough question as different people laugh at different things. Here is a quick list of things that can be considered funny:

  • Puns
  • Funny names
  • Funny faces
  • Odd clothes
  • Pratfalls
  • Rhymes
  • Imitations
  • Exaggerations
  • Insults

Be careful. Not everything can or should be used in the classroom. It is funny to watch a character insult another in a sitcom. But, in the classroom it can too easily slide into bullying! To be safe, make yourself the butt of your jokes.

Does humor distract actual learning?

This is a great question. Sure, humor increases student engagement. But, maybe the students are just paying attention to the laughs and are ignoring all the awesome learning.

Let’s put this to the test. Below are two links. They are links to YouTube videos about standardized testing. Watch them both.  When you are done, think about the topic. Which video dealt with the topic in the most memorable way?

Now that you’ve watched them, you might say, “Hey, that’s not fair! One was John Freakin’ Oliver. Of course he is more memorable!” Yes, I am sure the one video was more enjoyable than the other. But, I am literally talking about memorability – memory. Did the humor of the one video make you remember more about the topic than the other?

If so, why was that? Did the humor make you more open to the topic? Was it the info-joke-info-joke format? Were you less intimidated watching the funnier video?

The science data ahead may address some of these questions.

What do students think?

When asked about humor in the classroom, the students I surveyed surprised me with their answers. I expected stuff about class being more fun/less boring. Here are some of the responses I actually received:

  • “makes school less stressed”
  • “helps me understand more”
  • “helps me feel more comfortable in the classroom”
  • “gets me more interested in the subject”
  • “I am more engaged”

I was also worried that some students wouldn’t approve of humor – that perhaps they were worried about potential bullying or making class less serious. However, 100% of the respondents (approximately 65 8th grade students) approved of the use of humor.

Humor idea – create a pie chart that is an actual pie!

What the experts think…

Below are a few quotes and images outlining the effects of humor on learning and on the brain in general:

Humor as a confidence booster

  • humor can decrease the perceived difficulty of material and enhance student self confidence
  • can improve teaching effectiveness

Using Humor in the College Classroom to Enhance Teaching Effectiveness in “Dread Courses” by Neelam Kher, Susan Molstad and Roberta Donahue, 1999

Humor as a release

Research shows that laughter is an effective way for people of all ages to release pent-up tensions or energy, permit the expression of ideas or feelings that would otherwise be difficult to express and facilitate coping with trying circumstances (McGhee, 1979)

From Humor and Children’s Development: A Guide to Practical Applications, by Paul E Mcghee and Mary Frank, 1979.

New Scientist on the regions of the brain affected by humor

In addition to the two core processes of getting the joke and feeling good about it, jokes also activate regions of the frontal and cingulate cortex, which are linked with association formation, learning and decision-making. The team (led by Dean Mobbs of Stanford) also found heightened activity in the anterior cingulate cortex and the frontoinsular cortex – regions that are only present in humans and, in a less developed form, great apes. Indeed, the fact that these regions are involved suggests that humour is an advanced ability which may have only evolved in early humans, says Watson, who conducted the research.

Daniel Elkan

Humor “sparking” connections

A laugh may signal mockery, humor, joy or simply be a response to tickling, but each kind of laughter conveys a wealth of auditory and social information. These different kinds of laughter also spark different connections within the “laughter perception network” in the human brain depending on their context, according to new research.

General tips?

  • Be yourself – don’t try to copy a famous comedian or actor.
  • Surprise people. Set up an expectation and then immediately undermine it.
  • Make sure the humor is appropriate and not hurtful to other individuals or groups.
  • Watch the shows students watch, read the books they read – this is a wealth of potential references and jokes.
  • Be ready and be flexible – opportunities for a laugh sometimes appear out of the blue. Be ready to seize them at a moment’s notice!
  • Learn to laugh at yourself.

Another idea is to expose yourself to funniness. The goal is NOT to steal jokes, but instead to see how certain topics can be handled in a sensitive, yet funny, thought-provoking and engaging way.

This is a video of the comedian Louis C.K. Watch how he takes serious issues and helps us learn to laugh at them, in a thoughtful way.

They say laughter is the best medicine. But, let’s not let doctors have all the fun. Laughter can be the best teacher too. Give it a shot!

Hi 5!

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