Think back to the last time you laughed really hard. What were you doing? What triggered your laughter? What did it feel like to laugh that way? Laughter is such a genuine and authentic human reaction to finding something funny, and it’s also a way to feel enlivened and excited. Feeling enthusiastic is an important part of curiosity, and curiosity is one of the most significant aspects of learning.
Humor keeps us engaged and interested; it can also help us feel like we are part of a community and help us maintain perspective when something feels hard. For all of these reasons, humor can be an amazing tool in the classroom. The long-standing objection to laughter is that education is not a laughing matter. I must agree that presentation skills can compromise the integrity of the educational endeavor and this occurs whenever learning is assumed to be the automatic outcome of charismatic displays of pedagogical prowess. However, I also believe that the use of appropriate, content-specific humor can activate our sense of wonder, which is where learning begins, so it seems logical that humor could enhance retention.
It might also suffice to mention that the idea here is not for teachers to take on the additional burden of being stand-up comics or — God-forbid — to evaluate pedagogues based on a laugh-o-meter. It is for educators to appreciate that unmitigated solemnity isn’t a prescription for success, and to find some ways to bring humor into their students’ educational experiences. Your classroom is not a funeral mass and staging an I-have-been-through-hell kind of face throughout your lesson is not a guarantee of learning. It is not that humor causes learning; rather, it helps to create conditions conducive to learning. It helps learners relax, alleviates stress, and often makes it easier for students and teachers to connect personally.
What does this mean, practically? Showing a Mr. Bean clip to provide a wry perspective on a current event; assigning students to reimagine the setting of a scene from Hamlet and to perform it for their classmates; generally permitting some constructive silliness to pervade the classroom. Humor takes so many different forms and doesn’t have to be a polished routine. It can be other people’s material, such as jokes (professionally appropriate, of course), comics, or cartoons. It can be dry wit, silly puns, or other kinds of plays on words. Sometimes humor involves making the most of serendipitous events. Even teachers who struggle to tell a half-joke can stir some laughter with humorous readings or other media.
A classroom culture where laughter thrives can break down social barriers and enable closer relationships among students and between students and their teacher. It is, in Stephen Colbert’s words, a “lubricant of social interaction” that teaches toleration and good citizenship. Humor also fosters community and builds character, two virtues that educational reformers neglect in their quest to prepare students for maximal individual achievement in exams. Students are not just bundles of skills to be developed for “college and careers.” They are human beings; why not give them a chance to laugh a little?
Enhance the ambience of your classroom and improve the rapport with students using humor. Otherwise, the students will not look forward to the next class and most importantly, they may not learn or remember as much.
The writer is a Language Consultant