What's so funny?

Why laughter helps learning

Teaching is serious business, but teachers don’t always have to be serious to excel. IEU journalist Emily Campbell recaps the key findings of a recent study into the use of humour in classrooms.

A room full of laughing children might appear chaotic, but it’s indicative of a skilled teacher who can captivate children with creative content and help their young minds absorb information.

Educational research recognises that humour is one of the most desirable traits in teachers, given the positive effects it has on physiology, psycho-emotional states and human relationships.

When teachers utilise humour effectively and appropriately, it can improve communication, strengthen relationships between teachers and students and result in improved educational outcomes.

According to a recent literature review and study performed by Chaniotakis and Papazoglou (2019) there is a consensus among researchers that humour is a complex term that is difficult to define, given its subjectivity. It also involves moral dimensions.

Despite this complexity, researchers have made many attempts to categorise and define different forms and types of humour.

Social dimensions

Contemporary research seeks to explore the social and emotional functions of humour, rather than its development.

As a child’s vocabulary and abstract thinking develop, experiences of humour are enhanced and children progress from performing humorous physical actions to using their words and language to convey humour.

Linguistic development influences a child’s sense of humour, which becomes more social as young children experiment with new words and develop a sense of self.

Research generally indicates factors such as age and gender play a part in influencing a person’s sense of humour, with surveys confirming children laugh more frequently than adults and for very different reasons.

Considering the ability to distinguish and produce verbal humour increases with age, it is somewhat paradoxical that adults, who have improved their sense of humour with age, tend to laugh much less than children.

Some of the main forms of humour used by children in the age bracket of two to seven years include puns, funny songs and lyrics. Physical gestures such as awkward body postures or exaggerated poses and paradoxology are highly amusing to children this age.

Research shows that when teachers use positive humour, students are better motivated, more cheerful, less anxious and demonstrate greater engagement and participation.

Benefits for all

There are numerous benefits associated with using humour in a classroom context, including bringing teachers and children closer and improving student learning outcomes.

Research findings show that when teachers use positive humour, children are better motivated, more cheerful, less anxious and demonstrate greater engagement and participation with course content and subject matter.

Rapport between teachers and children can improve when humour is used, as it creates a pleasant atmosphere and encourages positive feelings about teaching and learning.

In many instances, including humour during teaching is shown to lead to greater information recall and retention in some children, especially those who have low motivation levels and struggle to pay attention.

Some teachers have even agreed that humour can be an effective classroom management tool when used properly, helping to capture students’ attention and encourage participation in class.

Teachers reportedly use humour for a variety of reasons, including as a way to relax and maintain an interest in their work. However, some teachers have also reported being reluctant to use humour in the classroom and actively discourage it.

Bergen’s (1992) research explored why some teachers are opposed to using humour. Some believe it will undermine their authority and lead to students not taking their education seriously. Others say they believe it to be a waste of time when there is so much curriculum content to get through.

A few cited they were apprehensive about including humour when teaching because they were not trained in how to use it appropriately or considered themselves to be lacking a decent sense of humour.

Researchers note it is important to distinguish between instances of positive and negative humour. Positive humour contributes to a productive atmosphere and improved relationships, while negative humour intends to embarrass, ridicule, offend or provoke anger or sadness, and has the opposite effect.

Positive influence

Researchers observed 124 hours of teaching across 105 classes in Greece, noting the frequency and type of humorous instances that occurred. The classes observed were an assortment of primary year level groups and subjects, with male and female teachers in different age brackets.

Humorous instances averaged two per hour and jokes produced by teachers happened twice as frequently as those made by students, with half of the humour relevant to course content.

Humorous instances produced by both teachers and students were overwhelmingly positive (91 per cent) with fewer instances of negative humour occurring (9 per cent).

There was no direct correlation found between the amount of humour and the class and grade, nor was there any relationship between the age or gender of the teacher and frequency or type of humour produced.

Finding a balance

During the study by Chaniotakis and Papazoglou, the use of humour by teachers varied; some did not use humour at all, others used it on occasion and a handful of teachers deployed it many times during a teaching hour.

It is very difficult to determine the exact or ideal amount of humour that should be used in a classroom, given there are so many factors at play.

A classroom with a total lack of humour may contribute to an atmosphere considered boring, rigid and less engaging than a class whose teacher successfully integrates amusement into their lessons.

However, if teachers use too much humour, children may focus on the jokes more than the lesson content and not take their work or their teacher’s authority seriously.

When used cleverly and appropriately, humour can be a great tool for captivating students’ attention, reducing anxiety, ensuring lesson content is interesting and creating a happy and healthy learning atmosphere.

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Bergen, D. (1992). Teaching strategies: Using humor to facilitate learning. Childhood Education, 69(2), 105-106.
Chaniotakis, N., & Papazoglou, M. (2019) The Place of Humor in the Classroom. In: Loizou E., Recchia S. (eds) Research on Young Children’s Humour. Educating the Young Child (Advances in Theory and Research, Implications for Practice), 15, chapter 8, pp. 127-143, viewed 15 June 2020, https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-15202-4_8