Humour is associated with a number of social and cognitive aspects of learning and education. Humour has been linked to improvements in engagement, attention, affinity, influence, as well as improvements in comprehension, creativity, problem solving, memory and divergent thinking. Humour and learning receives relatively little attention and greater consideration needs to be applied to this subject area.
A humorous learning culture is one which embraces, encourages and values humour. Humour should emerge naturally within the culture and can be generated and appreciated by everyone. Maximising the benefits of humour and learning can be achieved by adopting playful pedagogies which expose people to benign violations. This can be realised through application of theory and effective leadership.
Humour is a fundamental aspect of our day to day lives and is a characteristic which is universal and shared by all cultures and all people.
Everyone enjoys a humorous exchange with another person and funny people tend to be more memorable.
We actively seek humour in different forms and from different sources.
Humour has the potential to enhance social cohesion within groups of people and has also be linked to improvements in a number of cognitive skills.
However, humour receives very little attention within education, it rarely features in school or college vision and mission statements, rarely features in core values, is never seen in formal policy, and teachers tend to give little conscious thought to humour and learning.
So, I am sharing this article with the intention of encouraging more education professionals, like myself, to think more seriously about humour and learning and the socio-cognitive benefits that humour can provide.
There are two main reasons why I developed an interest in researching humour and learning.
The next two sections explore each of these observations in more detail.
There is a significant number of professional stand-up comedians who have either previously worked as teachers or previously trained to be a teacher.
I admit that a link can to made between any two professions if one looks hard enough, but the ease at which the link between teaching and comedy can be found, and volume of examples, makes this is unique case.
Two comedians in the UK who are known for being ex-teachers are, Romesh Ranganathan and Greg Davies. However, there are many more examples: Frankie Boyle, Alexai Salye, Frank Skinner, Guz Khan, Micky Flanagan, Dawn French, Roni Ancona, Jim Bowen and Hale and Pace.
If you are looking for US-based examples then we have: Gerry Dee, Billy Crystal, Eddie B, Amy Silverberg, Devin Siebold and Orlando Baxter.
In fact, the list goes on, and on, and on…
There are so many examples of professional comedians who used to be teachers that I believed this could not be a coincidence – there must be a reasons why so many teachers become comedians, or so many aspiring comedians chose teaching as a profession while they are trying to make it.
And we also have the reverse happening, where comedians use their comedic platform to educate people about a particular topic of interest.
Examples from the UK would include, Stephen Fry and Robin Ince.
I have noticed that when I speak to teachers and school leaders about humour and learning they typically agree that humour can be a beneficial aspect of teaching and learning.
Teachers are also very quick to share examples of how they have used humour to enhance their lessons and relationships with students.
However, very few teachers say that they actively consider humour in their teaching.
So, according to teachers, humour seems to be an important aspect of learning, but no one actively thinks about it.
I recently gave a talk (June 2021) at an online education conference and I asked the delegates to agree or disagree with two statements:
You can see from the graph 1 that a large number of teachers neither agreed or disagreed with this statement.
However, when teachers made the decision to commit to either agreeing or disagreeing with the statement, more agreed than disagreed.
This indicates that teachers are more likely to believe that humour is important for learning.
As in graph 1, the results for shown in graph 2 show that a large number of teachers neither agreed or disagreed with this statement.
But when teachers decided to commit to either agreeing or disagreeing with the statement the majority disagreed.
This indicates that teachers are more likely not to regularly think about humour and learning.
In conclusion, teachers tend to value the use of humour in the classroom to support learning. However, this is not consistent with the lower proportion of teachers who actively think about humour within their teaching and learning practice.
If humour is important, then we need to give it more attention.
Let’s now consider the differing views of students and teachers when considering humour and learning.
In 2018 TES conducted a survey where they asked over 2,000 primary and secondary school students what qualities students look for in their teachers.
The students were given a list of qualities, such as friendly, knowledgeable, fair, helpful, etc. and they were asked to rank the qualities in order from most desirable to least desirable.
The quality which was reported as most desirable, for both primary and secondary school students, was…
And it wasn’t even close, funny won by a landslide!
But student perspectives only provides part of the picture.
Have students intuitively identified as aspect of learning which enables them to engage in lessons and enhances their learning?
Or, do they simply want an easy lesson which is funny and enjoyable but does not necessarily enhance their learning?
Let’s see what the teachers think.
Research has been undertaken which explores teachers views on the use of humour in the classroom.
For the purpose of this article I will draw on the findings of Lovorn and Holaway (2015).
Teacher perspectives on humour and learning can be summarised into four main areas of discussion.
These findings are more negative than my own discussions and surveys with teachers would lead me to believe.
However, in both examples it is clear that teachers are more cautious of humour and learning than students and teachers certainly do not share the same overwhelmingly positive perspective that students have on humour and learning.
So, with mixed perspectives being offered by students and teachers, it would make logical sense to turn to the research to see what the literature can tell us about humour and learning.
What does the existing literature tell us about the potential benefits and drawbacks of humour and learning?
There is a relatively small but broad body of literature which considers humour and its role within teaching, learning and education.
Where most variation occurs is in relation to the social and emotional aspects of learning, such as: engagement, boredom, affinity, confidence and social cohesion.
Where less variation occurs, and where results are more consistently positive, is in relation to the cognitive aspects of learning, such as: creativity, divergent thinking, problem solving and comprehension.
Humour is said to have an equal ability to unite or divide a group of people, and this is reflected in the research which suggests that these aspects of learning tend to be more unpredictable.
Whereas, humour’s association with cognitive performance appears to be reported more positively in the research.
It’s worth mentioning that much of the research conducted on humour and learning tends to focus on individualised uses of humour through humorous interventions.
For example, a teacher being funny, a humorous research used, asking students to self report, etc.
Very few studies consider how humour and learning may be associated from a cultural or environmental perspective.
As humour is highly subjective and typically ineffective when artificially inserted into the learning process, approaching humour research from a learning culture, learning environment, learning climate or learning atmosphere viewpoint is of particular interest to me.
However, there are some studies which have focused on the learning environment, two of which I will draw on here to demonstrate how a humorous learning culture has the potential to support cognitive performance in students.
The first is a study conducted by Ziv in 1983.
Ziv was interested in the association between a humorous atmosphere and creativity and he ran an experiment using two groups of students.
One was pre-exposed to humorous blooper videos and the other was not.
Following this, both groups were asked to complete a creativity assessment.
Ziv found that the group who had been pre-exposed to the humour performed significantly better in the creativity task compared to the control group who were not pre-exposed to humour.
It is the fact that students were pre-exposed to humour that is of particular interest to me. As mentioned, much of the research on humour and learning is associated with humour being used during the learning or assessment task.
However, in this study there was no use of humour during the creativity task, but instead prior to the task.
This suggests that pre-exposure to humour primes the mind in some way to think more creatively.
The second study I would like to reference here is by Isen et al. (1987).
In a similar way to Ziv, Isen et al. pre-exposed a group of students to a humorous comedy movie and tested them in problem solving, comparing them to another group who had not been pre-exposed to humour.
As with Ziv’s findings, the group pre-exposed to humour performed significantly better than the control group.
Isen et al. also compared the humour group to an exercise group to see if the improvements in problem solving were due to a general feeling of happiness and wellbeing or whether there was something specifically about humour that was associated with improved cognitive performance.
The exercise group did not perform significantly better than the control group suggesting that humour has a unique ability to influence student creative problem solving.
Whilst these two studies do not prove that a humorous learning culture would support improved cognitive performance in students they do provide support for further exploration of this topic.
If pre-exposure to humour is associated with improvements in creativity and problem solving due to humour priming the mind to think more creatively and divergently, then if students function in a learning culture which is humorous there is a good case for suggesting that they will demonstrate improved cognitive function.
The term ‘humorous learning culture’ does not currently exist in the literature so it’s precise definition and make up is still to be clarified.
However, we can draw upon three theories of humour and pedagogy to propose what a humorous learning culture may look like.
These theories include:
Morreall (2010) has proposed a definition of humour as being ‘play with cognitive shifts’.
Humorous and playful thought requires creative thought and divergent thinking.
You would observe the oddities around you and interpret behaviour and information in a non-conventional way.
Learning through play and humour is associated with the collaborative playfulness of trial and error, exploration and experimentation.
Teachers can apply this in schools and colleges through the use of both physical play and cognitive play and by creating opportunities for playful interactions between individuals and groups.
This 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.
Playful approaches to learning are particularly absent from older age groups and greater consideration should be given to their use within this stage of learning.
A humorous learning culture would expose students to ‘incongruities’.
The incongruity theory proposes 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 often used as an example to explain how the incongruity theory works.
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.
Humour is generated when the person receiving the joke is able to identify and resolve the incongruity.
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 also 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 incongruity theory in practice, teachers and schools should create a culture which exposes students to a broader range of incongruities that challenge prior assumptions and beliefs, and provides opportunity for abstract ideas, non-linear problem-solving and unexpected facts, research and attitudes.
Proposed by McGraw and Warren (2010), the benign violation theory claims that three conditions are required to elicit humour:
This theory uses the term ‘violation’ which is closely aligned with ‘incongruity’.
A violation is anything that challenges someone prior assumptions and understanding.
However, for humour to be generated the situation also needs to be considered benign.
The benign violation theory is yet to be applied in an educational context within the literature, but I feel there is a clear alignment to learning.
Good teachers continuously ‘violate’ their 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, and even more so when proposing humorous learning cultures, ensuring that students learn within a safe, non-threatening environment is essential for promoting positive uses of humour that will develop a culture which supports learning.
A humorous learning culture can be developed by applying relevant theory and ensuring effective Leadership is in place.
Firstly, we need to establish an environment where a humorous learning culture could develop.
This culture would be centred around a playful philosophy for learning where students have the freedom to collaboratively explore their learning through experimentation and investigation.
The learning culture should expose students to a wide variety of incongruities and non-conventional thinking.
This will create cognitive dissonance and challenge students to regularly review their prior understanding, beliefs and attitudes in a more diverse way.
The learning culture would need to be safe and inclusive to encourage students to 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, developing a learning culture based on these broad principles does not guarantee that a humorous learning culture will develop.
It only provides an opportunity for a humorous learning culture to develop.
Effective leadership is required to support this process.
To ensure that a humorous learning culture is achieved, a clear and consistent leadership ethos needs to be established.
Such an ethos would view humour as having a positive impact on students’ social and cognitive development, and humour would be accepted and encouraged by both staff and students.
This can be achieved through policy, core values, training, positive acknowledgement and explicit communication.
One of the greatest challenges that teachers face when considering the use of humour in lessons 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, instead it is about encouraging everyone to actively look for, create and appreciate humour.