Learning requires effort, and that is a serious activity. On top of this, the figure of the teacher, who carries a certain authority, has always called for respect. That said, the quest for well-being is now present in almost every environment, and rigid hierarchical relationships are no longer appropriate. The pedagogical effectiveness of games and gamification, not only among young people, but also among adults, is well documented, and the importance of emotions in learning is no longer denied.

This leads us to humour, an ingredient that, in the classroom, is most often spontaneous and dependent on the teacher’s personality, but which deserves to be taken a little more “seriously,” given its potential positive and negative impacts. Without making an exhaustive analysis of the subject, here are some things to think about.

Whoever can’t laugh doesn’t deserve to be taken seriously.

– Thomas Bernhard

Irresistible humour

On the list of the most prized human and relational qualities, having a sense of humour occupies a special place. We know it: tactful use of humour is a formidable weapon of seduction, in the broadest sense of the word! It is because it mobilizes some of the most sophisticated cognitive faculties in the speaker: self-awareness, mastery of the nuance of language, understanding of emotions and non-verbal language, spontaneity, empathy… and because it usually provokes in the recipient that most pleasant and valid reflex that is laughter!

This ability, which can be elevated to the rank of “art,” is all the more precious to us since it could well be one of the last strongholds of the human race in front of the machine; artificial intelligence (AI) is not on the verge of “cracking” its codes (see AI, Make Me Laugh!). There aren’t, therefore, many who do not appreciate the distance, the de-dramatization, the relaxation and all the other benefits that can come from humour.

In the context of pedagogy and learning, subject of our interests here, a few studies seem to support the idea that learners better perceive a teacher who makes good use of humour in the classroom than a one who makes little use of it. While this is not surprising, let us insist on the importance of “good use” (see the Effective Humor in the Classroom: A Brief Guide), since it is often enough to have a slight clumsiness to break the appeal. A German study (Kassner, 2002) also reveals that students, while they attach more importance to humour in a course than teachers, are more sensitive than teachers to negative humourous situations.

Few researchers in the field of educational sciences have explored in depth the links between humour and learning. Among the first to try to overcome the lack of empirical studies on the subject was Avner Ziv, Professor of Psychology at Tel Aviv University. Ziv argued that humour could do more than just mobilize students’ attention, suggesting that it could promote learning by the association of ideas. In 1988, he published the results of his experiments with two groups of psychology students for a full term, each group having received instruction in the same subject, but one with humour and the other without. The first group ended the semester with a higher average than the second group, 86.4% versus 73.1%. The problem is that evaluating the pedagogical effectiveness of humour is far from simple since the variables involved are so many and for the most part impossible to isolate.

Define the elusive

Humour may be part of our daily lives, but when we look at it more seriously, we realize that it can be of immeasurable complexity. Robert Aird, a Quebec humour historian, argued in an interview with Le Devoir that “Any definition of laughter or what makes you laugh has a reducing effect,” adding that it is nevertheless what makes this subject so exciting.

Among our neighbours to the south, Jim Holt, author and contributor to New Yorker and New York Times Magazine as a specialist in science and philosophy, is also one of those who have tried to understand humour better. After a rigorous investigation, he concludes in his book Stop Me If You’ve Heard This: A History and Philosophy of Jokes that while the mechanics of laughter are scientifically dismantlable, the same cannot be said for humour, which remains mysterious. Journalist Joel Warner and Peter McGraw, director of the Humor Research Lab in Colorado, have travelled around the world to try to understand this phenomenon and published their observations in a book called The Humor Code. The most convincing theory, according to them, would be that of the “benign violation,” put forward by the linguist Thomas Veatch at the end of the 1980s, who maintains that we laugh at what seems inappropriate or shocking… but not too much! However, the “benign violation” as such varies from one culture to another — and even from one person to another — according to its taboos, codes, history, etc.

In France, linguist Patrick Charaudeau, who has studied the categorization of humorous facts based on several parameters derived from speech analysis, concedes that while the literature on humour is abundant, talking about this subject poses several difficulties, particularly because it is necessary to “avoid approaching this question by taking laughter as a guarantee of the humorous fact” or because it is necessary to overcome the challenges posed by “the choice of terms used to designate the humorous act.” According to the linguist, humorous acts rarely fall into a single category. “Here, we find ourselves in the presence of a fact of discourse which, perhaps more than others, plays on the plurality of the senses, which makes it charming. The meaning of a humorous fact depends on the combination of several categories that can coexist,” he says. Charaudeau also describes any humorous fact as “an act of enunciation for strategic purposes to make the other person an accomplice.” As for the possible effects of the humorous act, he describes them as “types of complicity” — playful, cynical and mocking critique — which, while distinguishing themselves, can, in his view, overlap with each other.

In short, analyzing humour is not a light thing… Despite the blurred nature and contradictions encountered when exploring this mysterious continent, it is still possible to navigate it with the help of some reference points that we owe to the various disciplines that have taken an interest in it.

Vital mechanism

Humour is part of our defence mechanisms and is defined in the DSM, the American bible of psychiatry as follows: “A mechanism by which the subject responds to emotional conflicts or internal or external stressors by highlighting the amusing or ironic aspects of the conflict or stressors.” A sense of humour is a faculty that develops very early in children. If their smiles are a reflex in their first weeks of life, around the age of four months, they already begin to laugh at what amuses them. “Unlike adults, very young children can laugh 20 times at the same joke, because repetition reassures them and helps them anticipate certain situations to have more fun,” we learn on the website Naître et Grandir. Like play, humour develops in children in several specific phases, and some believe it has a role in the acquisition of information useful for survival.

It is difficult to deny that humour is a fundamentally social act of humankind, as anthropologist Christine Escallier explains in Pedagogy and Humour: laughter as a mean of building an attentive audience in the classroom: “From the anthropological point of view, talking about laughter is first to emphasize the cultural aspect of behaviour. Anthropologists, like sociologists, consider laughter as a mode of communication, so for Desmond Morris, laughter is closely linked to the development of social life in primitive man.” In his article Humour and Communication. The link between emotions and cognition, the communications teacher Maria Lucília Marcos expresses how, no matter how you look at it, humour is always part of a relationship involving the individual and the collective: “As a response to certain demands of living together, hiding an ulterior motive of understanding and complicity with others, laughter has an undeniable social function: in the face of any individual or collective imperfection, laughter and laughter play, at the same time, as a correction and as repression or repulsion of human distractions and events. […] Humour and laughter always reveal a kind of individual tension that projects itself on the collective (which can be, of course, a collective of two) and absorbs the unease of others (or the other), according to a complex process of communication and capillarity, albeit brief.”

Christine Escallier also points out that humour has a filiation with a highly ethical value: “During the 19th and 20th centuries, laughter was related to the greatest of all wisdom. For Friedrich Nietzsche and Vladimir Jankélévitch, humour allows man to become aware of himself, to rise, socially and intellectually, by surpassing his condition. By becoming aware of oneself, one becomes aware of the other. Laughter, therefore, contributes to the formation of humans and the development of their humanity.”

These analyses show that humour is as important for our psychological balance as it is for our social balance. The classroom, being a microcosm of society and adding the fact that we spend a good part of our lives in it, comes with the necessity for humour to be included in it and for us to take a greater interest in its effects in this context. Like play, humour seems to share with learning natural connections, but while there is no longer any doubt about the relationship between play and learning, it is not the case of humour. However, the potentials attributed to it by Nietzsche and Jankelevich, more than a century ago, do not correspond to those of learning?

I once had a science teacher who used humour – and explosions in science experiments – to get our attention. It was great! I also remember an English teacher who had a dry wit and seemed to know it all; his classes were very entertaining and kept us engaged.  Keep people engaged, by hook or by crook! 🙂

— Joshua Nickerson, Interactive Developer at KnowledgeOne

A double-edged educational tool

Despite the scarcity of empirical studies on the links between humour and learning, a few studies on the subject provide some insight into what distinguishes humour that could be called “pedagogical” from humour that is “non-pedagogical.” In this regard, the German Dieter Kassner published Humour in the Classroom in 2002, after examining the relationship between humour and the pedagogical context of students and teachers in commercial vocational training schools. He defines “pedagogical humour” as “humour that influences pedagogical processes in a targeted way,” adding that “if humour influences the objectives of the pedagogical process in a positive way, it can be considered as part of the pedagogical tools.” Among his observations, Kassner notes that students and teachers agree that a course should not be without humour, but that the humorous situations experienced in it should be positive and fall within a certain humorous spectrum — which could be described as “benevolent” (Hain, 2000). The limits of benevolent humour are exceeded when one enters the spectrum of mockery, sarcasm, irony or so-called malignant enjoyment or when one uses humour excessively.

I once had a teacher, in an adult learning context, who had a sense of humor where he would make fun of people in a slightly nasty manner. Initially he used to do it with public figures or people not directly related to the group, and everyone found it funny and engaging. It created a nice, sort of relaxed atmosphere. Seeing it working, the person then began using the same approach to poke fun of people in the room. Some people found it funny, others not so much. I was personally so put off by it that I dropped out of the class. Using sarcasm and mean kind of humor is a really double-edged sword that very few people can use well.

— Manasvini Narayana, Learning Research Analyst at KnowledgeOne

Similarly, Avner Ziv concludes in his study that while humour can significantly help to memorize information, the teacher must use it in moderation and avoid sarcasm, at the risk of having a negative influence on learners. An article published on the Israeli Ministry’s website summarizes Ziv’s reservations about the systematic use of humour in the classroom: “He concludes that humour is not essential in teaching and is certainly not the most important quality of a good teacher: it should only be used by those who feel comfortable practicing it.” Ethnologist Christine Escallier comes to a similar recommendation: “If I advocate the use of laughter in teaching, it should be used sparingly, without making it a principle or a rule, but simply a healthy didactic tool among others.”

It goes without saying that humour influences as much our intellect as our emotions, one and the other being intimately linked. Since we now know how much emotions can become a driving force or a brake on the learning process, it is essential that the teachers — who are primarily responsible for injecting a benevolent and measured sense of humour into a classroom — take an interest in the emotional impacts of the humour they use with their students (see The Importance of Emotions in Learning and 4 Emotions of Learning).

Humour destabilizes, for better or for worse, the traditional relationship between teacher and learner, as Christine Escallier depicts it: “One of the paradoxes of teaching through humour is that it transforms the study context, in which knowledge is usually transmitted, where discipline and rigour prevail. The teacher-student relationship is established on the basis of complementary and stereotypical behaviours: the teacher speaks, the student listens; the teacher orders, the student obeys, etc. Introducing humour and laughter in a place where it is generally highly controlled or even banned, inevitably leads to physical change, a different physical and gestural attitude on the part of the teacher that will reflect on his public: the students.”

In grade 6, I had an eccentric teacher who would do a quiz every Friday with difficult questions… Every time a student had a good answer, he would eat a roasted grasshopper! It was a lot of fun, the questions were really hard and we really wanted to find the right answers! 😉

— Eric Hatch, Content Strategist & Coordinator at KnowledgeOne

In a post entitled Humour and Teaching published in the Voir, philosopher and essayist Normand Baillargeon asks himself if humour has a place in teaching, if we can learn through it, if it really has pedagogical virtues. The columnist begins by mentioning the pedagogical function that satire has played since antiquity: “By bringing to light, through mockery, what these institutions, people, etc. have that is ridiculous or indefensible, satire invites us to reassess them and, hopefully, to change them. In this way, it fulfils one of the great social functions of humour, which is to reveal our shortcomings by inviting us to correct them.”

The problem, as the columnist points out, is that the use of satire or humour in the classroom is risky and can, if it fails, cause considerable damage to the teacher himself, to some students and the classroom atmosphere. So how can we get the most out of humour in the classroom, make people laugh to make them think and generate change while avoiding at all costs hurting and creating the opposite effect? Baillargeon has two suggestions that he explains with the help of examples: the didactic and mnemonic joke — the idea of which came to him from a book introducing him to philosophy written in the form of jokes — and the witty remark.

Finally, a word on the Socratic irony to which the columnist refers, since, he recalls, it is “impossible to talk about humour and education without mentioning the first — and possibly the greatest — professor of philosophy: Socrates.” “This Socratic irony consisted of pretending ignorance in front of an ignorant’s surge of pride, who thinks he knows everything and questioning him by expressing the need to learn from him. The result of the exercise, conducted in front of witnesses, is that, in the end, the so-called scientist gradually loses his presence and is finally forced to admit his own ignorance,” explains Baillargeon. Although like Kassner, the columnist admits that irony has no real place in the classroom, it would be wrong to assert that this process, particularly when expressed in the Socrates way, is devoid of pedagogical value: “It is not recommended to practice this in the classroom. But before an Important and a Pretentious one, the pedagogical value of this way of doing things can be great, if not for the Important itself, at least for those who observe the verbal jousting and who will conclude, as the child pointing his finger at the parade of the Importants, that this royal person is indeed naked. And it’s really not pretty to see…”

Christine Escallier reminds us that in class, humorous expression can take many forms. “The teacher can project an image (cartoon, comic strip, photograph, etc.); he can also give a humorous text to read; tell a story or use terms from the talk of young people or any other social and community groups. But whatever the chosen means and/or the medium used, the difficulty lies in knowing what type of humour to deploy, and for what type of audience (age of pupils, cultures). It is necessary to use a kind of “neutral” humour; avoid jokes about religions (God, Mohammed), about political leaders (right, left, extreme) because they could then be considered as a backdoor way for the teachers to express their thoughts and manipulate their students.”

The issue of humour in the classroom could be summarized by this reflection by the French pedagogue and philosopher Hugues Lethierry, taken from his book Training in Humour, to the effect that we must “move from the involuntary humour of the school to a conscious use, partly controlled, to overcome institutional conflicts and take a step back from our own mood, develop with the divergent spirit the imagination and its indefinite potentialities.”

The potential of humour in the classroom

Facing new knowledge, having to admit your ignorance or accepting that knowledge that you thought was right is the opposite can put you in uncomfortable positions, but this is indissociable to learning. Humour can be a powerful antidote to this discomfort, if only because it desacralizes knowledge, thus making it less intimidating and thus helping the learner to tame it and then appropriate it.

In his post discussed above, Normand Baillargeon summarizes the potential benefits of humour in pedagogy when used judiciously: “The classroom atmosphere can be improved, interest in the subject and participation can increase, stress can decrease, relationships between students and between teachers and students can be better. Humour can still attract or maintain attention, provide a welcome break from a difficult lesson, break down psychological barriers and even facilitate the expression of ideas that would otherwise not be advanced.” It should be noted that several studies — more from the field of psychology than from the educational sciences — indicate that humour helps to create a favourable learning environment, attracts learners’ attention, and stimulates their creativity and motivation (Foll, 2007; Garner, 2005; Guégan, 2008; Ziv, 1979; Rißland and Gruntz-Stoll, 2009).

Concerning memorization, Avner Ziv, who had noted in his experiments the positive impact of humour on this ability, hypothesized that we would be more likely to remember information that generated emotions. It should be noted that neuroscience has recently confirmed that the learning process unfolds in a series of specific steps in which emotions have an up-to-date role, whether to stimulate attention and active engagement or to allow the encoding of information (see Neuroscience: Learning in 4 Steps).

Christine Escallier evokes the necessary balance — one could also speak of homeostasis — that humour can bring to the learning context, which necessarily comes with its share of seriousness and rigidity:  “Contraries are a source of dynamism. From this complementarity, necessary for every human being, the Work/Leisure couple here follows the theatrical rule of the three units — action, place and time — whereas in pedagogy this couple is fundamentally and traditionally always separated at school (Work = classroom / Leisure = playground). Consequently, the teacher creates an atmosphere conducive to study — Tonus / Relaxation —, that is, when the intellectual effort of understanding and memorization is compensated by relaxation and casualness. Thus this gymnastics, both physiological and intellectual, increases the student’s receptivity and emissivity. In other words, the student participates. This is the objective sought by every educator, because teaching is also, like laughter, communicating.”

Until research gives us a clear picture of all the potential of humour in learning, we can at least note this evidence, as Escallier does, that it can at least help to “combat the boredom that too often reigns in a classroom”…

Catherine Meilleur

Catherine Meilleur

Creative Content Writer @KnowledgeOne. Questioner of questions. Hyperflexible stubborn. Contemplative yogi.

Catherine Meilleur has over 15 years of experience in research and writing. Having worked as a journalist and educational designer, she is interested in everything related to learning: from educational psychology to neuroscience, and the latest innovations that can serve learners, such as virtual and augmented reality. She is also passionate about issues related to the future of education at a time when a real revolution is taking place, propelled by digital technology and artificial intelligence.