What is humour?
We may all “know” what humour is, but when we look at it more seriously, we realize that it is far from simple. Its mechanics, unlike that of laughter, can be challenging to dismantle from a scientific point of view. Humour can be said to be a form of communication that occupies a special place in the lives of human beings. This faculty, which develops early in childhood, could, among other things, play a role in the acquisition of information useful for survival. Humour is also identified in psychology as a defence mechanism that allows us to respond to emotional conflicts or stressors. Thus, although there are individual differences in the types of humour we enjoy, and some are better at making people laugh than others, few people are devoid of this disposition.
Humour is also a formidable weapon of seduction, in the broadest sense! Probably because it mobilizes some of our most sophisticated cognitive faculties, including self-awareness, mastery of the nuance of language, understanding of emotions and non-verbal language, spontaneity and empathy.
Why is it important to look at the impact of humour in learning?
Humour involves emotions, and we now know the extent to which emotions can have both positive and negative impacts on learning (see The Importance of Emotions in Learning and 4 Emotions of Learning). However, few educational researchers have yet explored the subject of humour in learning. In the classroom, humour is most often limited – for better or worse – to spontaneous acts, when it could be used (or avoided!) more conscientiously. If we believe that skilfully handled humour can be a pedagogical tool, clumsy humour can, on the contrary, prove to be anti-pedagogical and cause harm to both the learner and the teacher.
Although it is difficult to evaluate the pedagogical effectiveness of humour because the variables involved are so numerous and for the most part impossible to isolate, several studies, mainly from the field of psychology, give us some clues. They reveal, among other things, that humour helps create an atmosphere conducive to learning, attracts the attention of learners, and stimulates their creativity and motivation (Foll, 2007; Garner, 2005; Guégan, 2008; Ziv, 1979; Rißland and Gruntz-Stoll, 2009). Humour can also help retain information (Ziv, 1988).
What guidelines should teachers use to ensure that humour is used appropriately?
A few studies also seem to indicate that a teacher who makes good use of humour in the classroom has a more favourable perception of learners than a teacher who makes little use of it. The latter, however, would be preferable to a teacher who uses humour in an exaggerated (Ziv, 1988; Escallier, 2009) or negative ways, such as using sarcasm (Ziv, 1988; Kassner, 2002: Humour in the Classroom), mockery, irony, or so-called malignant humour. Since learners may be more sensitive to negative humour than teachers (Kassner, 2002: Humour in the Classroom), the latter need to ensure that if they use humour, it is relevant – some topics and situations simply do not lend themselves to it –, measured, caring (Hain, 2000), “neutral” – avoiding sensitive topics such as religion or politics – and that it is not directed at any particular learner.