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Humorous learning cultures

Written by: Jonanthan Sandling
10 min read

Humour is a fundamental part of our everyday lives and is a shared characteristic across all cultures. We enjoy the playful humorous interactions that we have with others and we actively seek humorous stimuli in a variety of forms. Humour can act as a social lubricant and has been associated with improvements in a number of cognitive functions. However, humour tends to get little attention within the education sector and is rarely mentioned explicitly in educational policy. I am presenting this article to encourage other education professionals to think more seriously about the socio-cognitive benefits that humorous learning cultures can provide.

Ex-teacher comedians

A member of my family is a stand-up comedian, and over the years I have met many professional and amateur comedians. Through general conversation, I noticed that a significant number of these comedians had previously been teachers. As a teacher myself, I became intrigued by this apparent link between teaching and comedy. Soon I found myself collating a list of ‘ex-teacher comedians’, which currently has 86 names on it. Notable entries include Romesh Ranganathan, Greg Davies, Frank Skinner, Alexei Sayle and even the outstanding comedy duo Hale and Pace (who met at teacher training college). Initially, my list was nothing more than a quirky conversation starter, used to liven up small talk whilst networking at education conferences. However, since exploring the topic in more detail, I have become more aware of the socio-cognitive benefits that humour can provide in an educational setting.

Students like ‘funny’

In 2017, the Times Education Supplement (TES) asked 3,000 primary and secondary school students across the UK to list the characteristics that they most valued in a teacher (Ziebart, 2017). The number one reported characteristic that students look for in a teacher was the same for both primary and secondary: funny. TES also reported that it was in no way a close race – funny won by a landslide. In fact, students have been expressing their fondness for funny teachers consistently since the 1950s (Highet, 1951). When asked, students not only associated humour with enjoyment, as one might expect, but they also directly associated humour with improvements in learning. This perspective is consistent with Torok et al. (2004), who found that 80 per cent of students believed that humour helped them to better understand complex concepts.

Teachers are not so sure

Do teachers share students’ fondness for humour? In a study by Lovorn and Holaway (2015), exploring teacher perceptions of humour, teachers expressed a somewhat cautious approach to the use of humour in the classroom. Few considered humour to be a ‘structured classroom strategy’, and they identified more negative than positive factors when evaluating the use of humour as a teaching method. In fact, the majority of teachers believed that it was their responsibility to ensure that humour did not distract students from learning. There is clearly a mismatch between how students and teachers view humour within education.

Socio-cognitive benefits of humour

Studies using humorous interventions have been associated with improvements in a number of cognitive functions. Research by Kellner and Benedek (2017) found that student creativity scores significantly improved when a humorous intervention was applied. Similarly, Van Dooren et al. (2018) conducted a study that challenged children to resolve complex word-based problems and found that children who were exposed to a humorous condition produced significantly more realistic problem-solving abilities. In addition, humorous interventions have been associated with improvements in memory (Christensen et al., 2018), ideation (Myers and Goodboy, 2014), decision-making (Clabby, 1979) and comprehension (Garner, 2006).

Humorous interventions have also been associated with improvements in various social learning factors. Lynch and Trivers (2012) demonstrated that humour facilitates a greater level of affinity within groups, strengthens social bonds and generates a sense of belonging.

From humorous interventions to humorous cultures

There is certainly evidence to suggest that humour is beneficial to learning but there is almost no literature focusing on humorous learning cultures within education. Instead, the majority of research focuses on the use of humorous interventions and their associated influence on individual student performance. Therefore, before proposing the potential benefits of a humorous learning culture, three main questions need to be considered: (1) Does a humorous learning culture support learning?; (2) What might be the components of a humorous learning culture?; and (3) How can a humorous learning culture be developed?

1. Does a humorous learning culture support learning?

In order to answer this initial question, two specific papers will be shared that support the use of humorous learning cultures.

Ziv (1983) conducted two experiments investigating the use of humour to promote creative thinking. His first experiment involved students watching humorous blooper videos prior to undertaking a creativity test. An important distinction here is that the humorous videos were detached from the task, in that the video content was irrelevant to the task and the videos were administered prior to the task. Students who were exposed to the humorous videos achieved significantly higher creativity scores compared to the control group. In Ziv’s second experiment, students were placed into two groups and asked to complete another creativity task. The first group were instructed to ‘give as many humorous answers as possible’, and the second group acted as a control. The group who were asked to be humorous in their answers achieved significantly higher creativity scores than the control group. Ziv had demonstrated that without providing any humorous stimuli at all and by simply asking students to think in a humorous way, students were able to generate greater levels of creativity. Ziv proposed that the cognitive processes associated with thinking humorously generated a specific mode of thinking that enabled students to approach the task in a more creative way.

Another notable experiment, conducted by Isen et al. (1987), placed students into separate groups and exposed them to different conditions. One group was shown a humorous TV show, another group undertook exercise and a final group acted as a control group. Following the initial stage of the experiment, all groups were set two problem-solving tasks. Consistent with Ziv’s findings, the group who had previously watched the humorous TV show significantly out-performed the other two groups. Like Ziv, Isen et al. concluded that watching humorous content prior to undertaking problem-solving tasks had exposed students to creative and divergent thinking and enabled improved problem-solving skills. An interesting finding within this study is that the group who undertook exercise showed no significant improvement in problem-solving skills. Like humour, exercise can generate a positive state of mind, so the benefits observed in the humorous group suggest that humour supports learning in a more complex way than simply generating a positive state of mind.

2. What might be the components of a humorous learning culture?

We will draw on humour theories to answer this question, with the aim of establishing some general guiding principles. It is beyond the scope of this article to provide detailed coverage of all related humour theories, so instead we will focus our attention on three of the most relevant contemporary theories: play theory, incongruity theory and the benign violation theory.

Play theory

Playfulness would be a core component of a humorous learning culture. Play is a feature of many teaching and learning philosophies, particularly within early childhood education, and the incorporation of humour as an inherent component of play can provide numerous benefits. Morreall (2010) has proposed a definition of humour as being ‘play with cognitive shifts’. Thinking humorously involves thinking more creatively, observing the oddities of the environment around you, and interpreting behaviour and information in a non-conventional way. Humour supports learning associated with the collaborative playfulness of trial and error, exploration and experimentation. This has practical applications for teachers and schools, in the use of both physical play and cognitive play. Creating opportunities for playful interactions between individuals and groups will allow students to engage in active learning processes where humour provides both social and cognitive benefits. Role-play, experimental learning and peer-to-peer learning lend themselves particularly well to this approach.

Incongruity theory

For a learning culture to be humorous, it would need to expose students to incongruities. Incongruity theory has been supported by various prominent philosophers, including Aristotle, Emmanuel Kant and James Beattie. The theory suggests that humour occurs following the resolution of a perceived incongruity. This has particular relevance to learning as it is centred on cognition and directly linked to problem-solving. Jokes are a good example of this theory in action. The set-up to the joke will typically follow a congruent and logical thought process but the punchline will produce an incongruity or unexpected outcome. Understanding the joke means that the incongruity has been resolved. It is the process of being challenged with an incongruity and the ability to make sense of the incongruity that is of particular relevance to learning. The application of this theory has been supported by neuroscience research conducted by Vrticka et al. (2013), which found that humour engages areas of the brain responsible for problem-solving through resolving mismatches between expected events and actual events, thus enhancing cognitive function. When considering the practical implications of this theory, teachers and schools should aim to more broadly expose students to incongruities by challenging prior assumptions and beliefs, abstract ideas, non-linear problem-solving and unexpected facts, research and attitudes.

Benign violation theory

Proposed by McGraw and Warren (2010), the benign violation theory claims that three conditions are required to elicit humour: (1) a violation must occur (an incongruity); (2) the situation must be considered benign (non-threatening); and (3) the first two conditions must occur simultaneously. This theory uses violations to incorporate the incongruity principle through challenging prior assumptions and understanding, but includes a benign component to incorporate a social dimension to the understanding of humour. The benign violation theory is yet to be applied in an educational context within the literature, but there is clear alignment to learning. As teachers, we continuously ‘violate’ our students’ prior understanding and assumptions, but in a safe and benign way, thus enabling students to positively develop their understanding or reinforce their existing knowledge. The key element contained in this theory, which is not considered in most other humour theories, is that the violation must be benign. Particularly within an educational context, ensuring that students function within a safe, non-threatening environment is essential for promoting positive uses of humour that will support learning.

3. How can a humorous learning culture be developed?

Firstly, we would need to establish an environment where a humorous learning culture could develop. Such a culture would be anchored on a playful philosophy for learning where students have the freedom to collaboratively investigate, experiment and explore. The learning culture should expose students to a wide variety of incongruities and non-conventional thinking so as to more regularly challenge prior understanding, beliefs and attitudes in a more diverse way. Lastly, the learning culture would have to be benign and non-threatening to encourage students to safely engage in playful behaviours and explore incongruities in a variety of forms. These principles can be applied to all levels and stages of education and can be encouraged through curriculum design, resource development and use of physical spaces.

However, establishing a learning culture based on these principles does not guarantee that a humorous learning culture will develop; it only provides an opportunity for this to occur. To ensure that this opportunity is realised, a clear and consistent ethos needs to be established. An appropriate ethos would view humour as having a positive impact on students’ social and cognitive development, and humour would be acceptable and encouraged by both staff and students. This could be achieved through policy, core values, training, positive acknowledgement and explicit communication.

One of the biggest challenges that teachers face when considering the use of humour is that many teachers do not consider themselves to be funny – but this is missing the point. Learning interactions do not only occur from teacher to student; they also occur from student to teacher and between students. Not everyone would believe that they are funny, but everyone does believe that they have a sense of humour. It is as much about seeing funny as it is about being funny. A humorous learning culture would value all interactions that take place between different individuals and groups, both inside and outside the classroom. It is not about teachers leading the use of humour but instead it is about encouraging everyone to actively seek, generate and appreciate humour.


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