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. 

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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