Teaching With Humor

All teachers in training (actually all teachers) should be trained in the use of humor in the classroom. Not only is the technique a prime motivator (see: Humor as a Motivator) the expectation humor coming at an unexpected time or in an unexpected manner can help lengthen student attention spans. Offering a course in stand-up comedy in teacher training colleges and professional development programs would not only legitimize humor as a teaching tool but also accomplish the same K-12 goal which is to open the mid to learning through the use of humor.

Peter Connor (http://teaching.colostate.edu/tips/tip.cfm?tipid=47) informs us that, public speakers often begin with a joke or an amusing anecdote – and with good reason – to get everyone’s attention. A good laugh at the beginning helps bring an audience together. Waiting for the punch line – or the point of the story – focuses attention on the speaker.

In the classroom, besides getting everyone’s attention, humor goes a long way toward fostering a healthy learning environment. For one thing, it’s an ice breaker. It can help open the floor up to a free-ranging, topic-oriented discussion in which students relax enough to become fully engaged.

Humor can also misfire. It’s funny that way. That which you consider funny, others may not. To be effective in the classroom, humor must be constructive. Take care to place jokes and anecdotes within the context of the material being presented, and in a manner that supports the lesson being taught.

In an article titled Engaging Students with Humor, published in The Observer, a publication of the APS (Association for Psychological Science), Ted Powers, professor of psychology at Parkland College, Champaign, IL, presents some useful guidelines for including humor in your pedagogical toolbox. His overarching message is this, however: humor is a delicate thing—be careful (2005).

 Here are some of his observations:

  • Avoid hurtful humor: Don’t be hostile toward, or demeaning of, others
  • Let common sense guide your subject selection, tone and intent
  • Know your student/teacher dynamics and judge the joke climate carefully
  • Lose your fear of embarrassment. It’s okay to make a fool of yourself in the interest of drawing shyer students out of their shells
  • Make humor relevant: Deliver timely, content-oriented material
  • Don’t be afraid to “Act Out” concepts and content
  • Use funny movie and TV clips to make a point
  • Do a little dance when the ring of a musical cell phone disrupts the class
  • Use humor in test and quiz questions. It will help lift the veil of test-anxiety
  • When appropriate, use funny life stories: Both yours – and with permission – your students

As a pedagogical tool, humor can help reduce student anxiety, diffuse awkward classroom situations, and increase retention of lecture-specific information. Powers recommends that you “use it in moderation….You want to teach well, not be a stand-up comic.” For maximum effect, humor should be employed deliberately and be very well thought out.