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Laugh it up

Can humor help teaching and learning?

Education of students is serious, important work, but there is also scholarly research that says it may be most effective if it’s sometimes fun.

For years teachers have tried ways of bringing humor into the classroom to keep kids engaged, and Mary Kay Morrison, past president of the Association of Applied and Therapeutic Humor and author of the book Using Humor to Maximize Learning, says brain research shows that it’s a good idea.

“It maximizes learning and strengthens memories by gaining a student’s attention then imbeds the information,” she says. She notes that students surveyed on the topic say teachers who use humor are much more effective at motivating them, engaging them, reducing their anxiety, developing positive teacher-student relationships and being interested in their learning.

Experts say, however, that it has to be implemented properly to be effective, though it doesn’t have to be used by a person who is naturally or comfortably funny. And it shouldn’t be used just to get students to like a class; expectations about behavior and performance that would normally be in place should be enforced.

“A classroom without learning is a failed one, but the atmosphere can be playful and even joyful,” says Sean O’Brien, an award-winning English teacher at West Ranch High School in Stevenson Ranch, CA., who has gained attention for his humor. “It probably shouldn't just be fun the way a bouncy castle is.”

Morrison agrees but says it should be used often, and any teacher can try it. “It should be done intentionally with thought, but all types of teachers can use humor effectively if they work at it.”

She notes that humor gets students’ attention because it typically involves the unexpected, which “alerts the attentional center of the brain” which, in turn, increases the likelihood of information recall. Then, she says, humor actually activates more of the brain than many other activities in a classroom.  So, a student who is just listening, for instance, is using one part of the brain but humor will add to the stimulation.

Morrison notes that it also has other less tangible benefits – reducing stress for the teacher and the students, increasing creativity and energy in the classroom and creating and improving the atmosphere or culture. 

“Humor is a social lubricant,” she says.  “It promotes trust, communications and goodwill, but must be done with thought and care.”

Reducing stress is also a positive outcome that shouldn’t be overlooked, says Ron Berk, author of the book “Humor as an Instructional Defibrillator” and former dean for the Johns Hopkins School of Education. He is adamant about humor’s effectiveness in teaching, even in testing. A student who becomes “mentally arthritic” won’t test well, he says.

Here are a few ideas about using humor effectively:

Mix unlike things. Obrien says that incongruous items often are funny. He likes to connect Shakespeare to a modern reality show for instance. Others have related science to sports. “Mashing up the world of academia with the world the students live in is funny and memorable,” he says. “If you don't believe me, I have one word for you: Hamilton.”

Get back to work. A bit of humor gets attention and provides a break, but teachers should have it relate to the work somehow, should keep it brief (even if they let students participate) and have a path back to more serious information and a method to bring their students along.

A simple surprise. Just having on an odd hat or projecting a cartoon at the start of a class can get students energized. A simple surprise is also a way that a teacher who doesn’t think they are funny can easily bring some lightheartedness to the classroom.

Stealing the joke. Another route for teachers who don’t think they are naturally jokesters is to read a humorous story or show students a funny cartoon or video. There is almost always a video or a cartoon on pretty much any topic so they can make it relate to subject matter.

Keep it up. Having a funny poster or humorous (and meaningful) quote visible for a longer period creates a light-hearted atmosphere. And can remind students of key topics that were discussed when it was introduced. Humor that makes a point about learning is especially helpful in this regard.

Let them at it. Have time when students can tell a joke (with guidance about the humor being appropriate) and you will find that even the most introverted ones might be willing to participate. Give them a chance to write about a funny incident.

Keep track. One teacher keeps a “blooper book” with a record of the funniest things that happen in class, including her own mistakes. Others keep track of the humorous material they’ve used that seems to be received the best or is most effective with their lessons.

Game time. Give students a quiz with the right answers mixed in with outlandish wrong ones. Have a game show where the answers are on topic, but the game is humorous and fun.

Transition time. Experts say it is critical to have a plan to get students focused on the information in a lesson with a transition back to it: “So how does that joke relate to what you were reading last night for this next concept we are going to discuss?” Or there can be a promise of more fun if students can focus on the subject for a period.

Written by Jim Paterson, Education World Contributing Writer

Jim Paterson is a writer, contributing to a variety of national publications, most recently specializing in education. During a break from writing for a period, he was the head of a school counseling department. (

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