Humor is a Test of Character: Why Our Classrooms Need More Joy and Laughter

Humor fosters community and builds character, two virtues that educational reformers neglect. 

Humor is a Test of Character: Why Our Classrooms Need More Joy and Laughter

Educational standards might be the most boring things on earth. Try to make your way through a few New York State standards for American history and you’ll see what I mean.


The trouble is not just that teachers may need to specify how exactly they are addressing, say, performance indicator SS1.C.1A. The bigger problem is that every state has its own arcane standards and its own standardized assessments developed by test-design companies for upwards of hundreds of millions of dollars — per contract.

Help is on the way. A new set of Common Core standards in English and math have been adopted by 45 states and new common assessments are coming in 2014. The new standards are more concise, more rigorous, aim to better prepare students for college and careers and are internationally benchmarked.  

But for a document that trumpets its recommendations as “research and evidence based,” there is something big missing: an acknowledgement of the proven value of classroom levity. For all its strengths, the Common Core is a bit of a drag. The standards ramp up the complexity of texts, require schools to teach more “informational texts” and less literature and promises to test every student every year to measure progress in English and math.

As a colleague lamented during a training session in our school last week, “Where is the joy?”

A joyful childhood may be more elusive in today’s climate of standardized tests beginning in pre-Kindergarten, slashed recess time and extracurricular over-scheduling, but that doesn’t mean the classroom must be all boot camp, all the time. Research suggests that laughing doesn’t just feel good; it makes us smarter.

In their 2011 book Inside Jokes: Using Humor to Reverse-Engineer the Mind, Matthew M. Hurley, Daniel C. Dennett and Reginald B. Adams, Jr. explain the tight link between brain development and humor that cognitive neuroscientists have found. Jogging the mind to produce laughter is part of what makes us human:

Mother Nature — natural selection — has hit upon [a] trick to get our brains to do all the tedious debugging that they must do if they are to live dangerously with the unruly piles of discoveries and mistakes that we generate in our incessant heuristic search....She has to bribe the brain with pleasure. That is why we experience mirthful delight when we catch ourselves wrong-footed by a concealed inference error. Finding and fixing these time-pressured mis-leaps would be constantly annoying hard work, if evolution hadn’t arranged for it to be fun. This wired-in source of pleasure has then been tickled relentlessly by the supernormal stimuli invented and refined by our comedians and jokesters over the centuries. We have, in fact, become addicted to this endogenous mind candy...

In my own experience as a teacher, canned jokes don’t always fly  so I’ve started bottling them. (See?). Like many pedagogues, I tend be funny only by accident. Students prick their ears for these moments and “Teacherisms” are one of the most popular features in our student newspaper. A few recent examples of my colleagues’ classroom utterances (with identities withheld):

  • “You know people try so many ways to become immortal. None of them work.”
  • "When I was in Norway, I lost weight because everything costs so much."
  • "Hebrew does sound like Klingon, doesn't it?"
  • “Folding is 80% of your grade.”
  •  “This is my going-to-a-funeral purple sweater.”
  • "Questions, Comments, Threats, Prayers?"
  • "You know it. You have it in you. We just need to extract it. That's why I have a degree in dentistry.”
  • Student: “Why is your biography [in your book] so short?"  Teacher: “Because my life is so empty.”

The idea is not for teachers to take on the additional burden of being stand-up comics or  God-forbid  to evaluate pedagogues based on a laugh-o-meter. It is for educators to appreciate that unmitigated solemnity isn’t a prescription for success, and to find some ways to bring humor into their students’ educational experiences.  

What does this mean, practically? Showing a Jon Stewart clip to provide a wry perspective on a current event; assigning students to reimagine the setting of a scene from Hamlet and to perform it for their classmates; generally permitting some constructive silliness to pervade the classroom.    

My daughter’s second-grade teacher ritually teaches students a “joke of the day” out of a joke book every morning.  One day last week, when her school was open only until noon, the teacher skipped the joke to dive right into a math lesson. This provoked my daughter’s cry that there should be a “joke of the half day.” Her teacher complied: “Knock knock,” she said. When the kids asked “Who’s there?” Ms. W. just smiled.

Even teachers who struggle to tell a half-joke can stir some laughter with humorous readings or other media. There are psycho-social benefits of humor in the classroom that go beyond its brain-building potential. As Wallace et al. relate in a recent study of adolescent development:

[T]eachers’ use of humor played a role in how students perceived being known by that teacher. To effectively use humor required shared experience and a certain level of nuanced knowledge of that student's personal history. In turn, a kind of reciprocity in attention and respect developed between students and their teachers.

A classroom culture where laughter thrives can break down social barriers and enable closer relationships among students and between students and their teacher. It is, in Stephen Colbert’s words, a “lubricant of social interaction” that teaches toleration and good citizenship. What you find funny, says Colbert in this uncommonly earnest clip, is a test of your character:



Humor fosters community and builds character, two virtues that educational reformers neglect in their quest to prepare students for maximal individual achievement on standardized exams. But children are not just bundles of skills to be developed for “college and careers.” They are human beings. Let's give them a chance to laugh a little.

Follow Steven Mazie on Twitter: @stevenmazie

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Surprising Science
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COVID and "gain of function" research: should we create monsters to prevent them?

Gain-of-function mutation research may help predict the next pandemic — or, critics argue, cause one.

Credit: Guillermo Legaria via Getty Images
Coronavirus

This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink.

"I was intrigued," says Ron Fouchier, in his rich, Dutch-accented English, "in how little things could kill large animals and humans."

It's late evening in Rotterdam as darkness slowly drapes our Skype conversation.

This fascination led the silver-haired virologist to venture into controversial gain-of-function mutation research — work by scientists that adds abilities to pathogens, including experiments that focus on SARS and MERS, the coronavirus cousins of the COVID-19 agent.

If we are to avoid another influenza pandemic, we will need to understand the kinds of flu viruses that could cause it. Gain-of-function mutation research can help us with that, says Fouchier, by telling us what kind of mutations might allow a virus to jump across species or evolve into more virulent strains. It could help us prepare and, in doing so, save lives.

Many of his scientific peers, however, disagree; they say his experiments are not worth the risks they pose to society.

A virus and a firestorm

The Dutch virologist, based at Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam, caused a firestorm of controversy about a decade ago, when he and Yoshihiro Kawaoka at the University of Wisconsin-Madison announced that they had successfully mutated H5N1, a strain of bird flu, to pass through the air between ferrets, in two separate experiments. Ferrets are considered the best flu models because their respiratory systems react to the flu much like humans.

The mutations that gave the virus its ability to be airborne transmissible are gain-of-function (GOF) mutations. GOF research is when scientists purposefully cause mutations that give viruses new abilities in an attempt to better understand the pathogen. In Fouchier's experiments, they wanted to see if it could be made airborne transmissible so that they could catch potentially dangerous strains early and develop new treatments and vaccines ahead of time.

The problem is: their mutated H5N1 could also cause a pandemic if it ever left the lab. In Science magazine, Fouchier himself called it "probably one of the most dangerous viruses you can make."

Just three special traits

Recreated 1918 influenza virionsCredit: Cynthia Goldsmith / CDC / Dr. Terrence Tumpey / Public domain via Wikipedia

For H5N1, Fouchier identified five mutations that could cause three special traits needed to trigger an avian flu to become airborne in mammals. Those traits are (1) the ability to attach to cells of the throat and nose, (2) the ability to survive the colder temperatures found in those places, and (3) the ability to survive in adverse environments.

A minimum of three mutations may be all that's needed for a virus in the wild to make the leap through the air in mammals. If it does, it could spread. Fast.

Fouchier calculates the odds of this happening to be fairly low, for any given virus. Each mutation has the potential to cripple the virus on its own. They need to be perfectly aligned for the flu to jump. But these mutations can — and do — happen.

"In 2013, a new virus popped up in China," says Fouchier. "H7N9."

H7N9 is another kind of avian flu, like H5N1. The CDC considers it the most likely flu strain to cause a pandemic. In the human outbreaks that occurred between 2013 and 2015, it killed a staggering 39% of known cases; if H7N9 were to have all five of the gain-of-function mutations Fouchier had identified in his work with H5N1, it could make COVID-19 look like a kitten in comparison.

H7N9 had three of those mutations in 2013.

Gain-of-function mutation: creating our fears to (possibly) prevent them

Flu viruses are basically eight pieces of RNA wrapped up in a ball. To create the gain-of-function mutations, the research used a DNA template for each piece, called a plasmid. Making a single mutation in the plasmid is easy, Fouchier says, and it's commonly done in genetics labs.

If you insert all eight plasmids into a mammalian cell, they hijack the cell's machinery to create flu virus RNA.

"Now you can start to assemble a new virus particle in that cell," Fouchier says.

One infected cell is enough to grow many new virus particles — from one to a thousand to a million; viruses are replication machines. And because they mutate so readily during their replication, the new viruses have to be checked to make sure it only has the mutations the lab caused.

The virus then goes into the ferrets, passing through them to generate new viruses until, on the 10th generation, it infected ferrets through the air. By analyzing the virus's genes in each generation, they can figure out what exact five mutations lead to H5N1 bird flu being airborne between ferrets.

And, potentially, people.

"This work should never have been done"

The potential for the modified H5N1 strain to cause a human pandemic if it ever slipped out of containment has sparked sharp criticism and no shortage of controversy. Rutgers molecular biologist Richard Ebright summed up the far end of the opposition when he told Science that the research "should never have been done."

"When I first heard about the experiments that make highly pathogenic avian influenza transmissible," says Philip Dormitzer, vice president and chief scientific officer of viral vaccines at Pfizer, "I was interested in the science but concerned about the risks of both the viruses themselves and of the consequences of the reaction to the experiments."

In 2014, in response to researchers' fears and some lab incidents, the federal government imposed a moratorium on all GOF research, freezing the work.

Some scientists believe gain-of-function mutation experiments could be extremely valuable in understanding the potential risks we face from wild influenza strains, but only if they are done right. Dormitzer says that a careful and thoughtful examination of the issue could lead to processes that make gain-of-function mutation research with viruses safer.

But in the meantime, the moratorium stifled some research into influenzas — and coronaviruses.

The National Academy of Science whipped up some new guidelines, and in December of 2017, the call went out: GOF studies could apply to be funded again. A panel formed by Health and Human Services (HHS) would review applications and make the decision of which studies to fund.

As of right now, only Kawaoka and Fouchier's studies have been approved, getting the green light last winter. They are resuming where they left off.

Pandora's locks: how to contain gain-of-function flu

Here's the thing: the work is indeed potentially dangerous. But there are layers upon layers of safety measures at both Fouchier's and Kawaoka's labs.

"You really need to think about it like an onion," says Rebecca Moritz of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Moritz is the select agent responsible for Kawaoka's lab. Her job is to ensure that all safety standards are met and that protocols are created and drilled; basically, she's there to prevent viruses from escaping. And this virus has some extra-special considerations.

The specific H5N1 strain Kawaoka's lab uses is on a list called the Federal Select Agent Program. Pathogens on this list need to meet special safety considerations. The GOF experiments have even more stringent guidelines because the research is deemed "dual-use research of concern."

There was debate over whether Fouchier and Kawaoka's work should even be published.

"Dual-use research of concern is legitimate research that could potentially be used for nefarious purposes," Moritz says. At one time, there was debate over whether Fouchier and Kawaoka's work should even be published.

While the insights they found would help scientists, they could also be used to create bioweapons. The papers had to pass through a review by the U.S. National Science Board for Biosecurity, but they were eventually published.

Intentional biowarfare and terrorism aside, the gain-of-function mutation flu must be contained even from accidents. At Wisconsin, that begins with the building itself. The labs are specially designed to be able to contain pathogens (BSL-3 agricultural, for you Inside Baseball types).

They are essentially an airtight cement bunker, negatively pressurized so that air will only flow into the lab in case of any breach — keeping the viruses pushed in. And all air in and out of the lap passes through multiple HEPA filters.

Inside the lab, researchers wear special protective equipment, including respirators. Anyone coming or going into the lab must go through an intricate dance involving stripping and putting on various articles of clothing and passing through showers and decontamination.

And the most dangerous parts of the experiment are performed inside primary containment. For example, a biocontainment cabinet, which acts like an extra high-security box, inside the already highly-secure lab (kind of like the radiation glove box Homer Simpson is working in during the opening credits).

"Many people behind the institution are working to make sure this research can be done safely and securely." — REBECCA MORITZ

The Federal Select Agent program can come and inspect you at any time with no warning, Moritz says. At the bare minimum, the whole thing gets shaken down every three years.

There are numerous potential dangers — a vial of virus gets dropped; a needle prick; a ferret bite — but Moritz is confident that the safety measures and guidelines will prevent any catastrophe.

"The institution and many people behind the institution are working to make sure this research can be done safely and securely," Moritz says.

No human harm has come of the work yet, but the potential for it is real.

"Nature will continue to do this"

They were dead on the beaches.

In the spring of 2014, another type of bird flu, H10N7, swept through the harbor seal population of northern Europe. Starting in Sweden, the virus moved south and west, across Denmark, Germany, and the Netherlands. It is estimated that 10% of the entire seal population was killed.

The virus's evolution could be tracked through time and space, Fouchier says, as it progressed down the coast. Natural selection pushed through gain-of-function mutations in the seals, similarly to how H5N1 evolved to better jump between ferrets in his lab — his lab which, at the time, was shuttered.

"We did our work in the lab," Fouchier says, with a high level of safety and security. "But the same thing was happening on the beach here in the Netherlands. And so you can tell me to stop doing this research, but nature will continue to do this day in, day out."

Critics argue that the knowledge gained from the experiments is either non-existent or not worth the risk; Fouchier argues that GOF experiments are the only way to learn crucial information on what makes a flu virus a pandemic candidate.

"If these three traits could be caused by hundreds of combinations of five mutations, then that increases the risk of these things happening in nature immensely," Fouchier says.

"With something as crucial as flu, we need to investigate everything that we can," Fouchier says, hoping to find "a new Achilles' heel of the flu that we can use to stop the impact of it."

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Credit: Hà Nguyễn via Unsplash
Sex & Relationships
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