Make them laugh, help them learn

I am a big fan of stand-up comedy.  Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee is an entire series by Jerry Seinfeld that features funny people being funny together, and it is mesmerizing.  As if someone making you laugh isn’t funny enough, watching someone making another “funny” person laugh is hilarious.  I also enjoy the flip side, watching funny people try not to laugh, ala Jimmy Fallon in old SNL skits.

The point is, there is something incredibly engaging about humor.  It draws people in, creates a sense of community, and makes the process more joyful.  This is an indispensable tool that leaders, and similarly teachers, can use in the classroom.  Do teachers have to be funny?  Absolutely not.  Some of my most influential teachers were very straight ahead in their instructional methods.  However, for me, the teachers who made learning fun and kept me listening were charismatic and engaging – they were the ones that coupled humor with academic rigor.

1. Humor draws people in.  There’s a reason why it’s so easy to follow the rabbit down the hole of funny YouTube videos.  You laugh, you feel good, the brain releases some dopamine, and bam!, “Please sir, may I have some more?”  Couple that release of dopamine with some intellectually valuable material, and suddenly students are learning without putative consequences.

2. Humor creates a sense of community.  Why do we laugh harder when we’re in a movie theatre with 250 of our closest friends?  Hearing the laughs around you and knowing that you are experiencing the same laugh creates a mini-community.  Community contains a social glue that can bring a group of people together, and the experience can be heightened.  With a community, teachers can then direct the energies of the group in another group task, e.g. learning.

3. Humor makes the process more joyful.  We’ve all been in classes or meetings where time simply refuses to pass.  It’s only been five minutes?!  It’s like watching water boil.  We’ve also experienced the old adage, “Time flies when you’re having fun.”  Think of Snow White’s encouragement to “whistle while you work.”  People want to do things that are fun – so can humor be used to encourage fun?  Definitely.  I have seen great teachers use humor as an incredible motivating tool, which can lead to more creative work and improved results, especially with heuristic activities, experienced-based techniques for problem solving, learning, and discovery (For more reading, see Deci and Ryan’s (2000) Self-Determinatino Theory and the importance of interest and enjoyment to Autonomous Motivation).

Today, I had a blast guest-conducting for the students of the Pacific Symphony Youth Wind Ensemble.  Their director, Joshua Roach, was kind enough to invite me down to spend the afternoon working some of the pieces they’ll be performing on their Spring Concert, March 9, 2014.  In addition to playing great music, being such well-prepared and talented young artists, the students were just incredibly gracious and welcoming.

I spent the second half of the rehearsal watching Larry Livingston clinic the group – a true teaching tour de force.  In addition to holding the students to the highest musical standards, his engagement of the room was immediate and incredibly humorous.  Maestro Livingston demonstrated great Teacher Immediacy, as Titsworth (2001) describes:

Teacher Immediacy behaviors generate perceptions of psychological closeness with students (Andersen & Andersen, 1982; Gorham, 1988). Teachers who are highly immediate tend to use consistent eye contact, movement, vocal variety, gestures, humor, and personalized examples during class whereas non-immediate teachers tend to read from notes, stand behind a podium, use monotone delivery, few gestures, little humor, and abstract examples (Andersen, Andersen, & Jensen, 1979).

I can list a number of my own teachers who very aptly used humor at the right time and in the right manner to break the tension or re-engage students.  However, this is very different from just being silly without content.  A class devoid of content and only humor can spiral into complete disarray.  As teachers, we strive to find that balance, to use all of the tools we have at our disposal to inspire and connect with our students.  If we make them laugh, we can help them learn.


Andersen,J., Andersen, P., & Jensen, A. (1979). The measurement of nonverbal immediacy. Journal of Applied Communication Research, 7, 153-180.

Andersen, P., & Andersen, J. (1982). Nonverbal immediacy in instruction. In L. Barker (Ed.), Communication in the classroom (pp. 98-120). Engelwood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Intrinsic and extrinsic motivations: Classic definitions and new directions. Contemporary Educational Psychology25, 54-67.

Gorham, J. (1988). The relationship between verbal teacher immediacy behaviors and student learning. Communication Education, 37, 40-53.

Gorham, J., & Christophel, D. (1990). The relationship of teachers’ use of humor in the classroom to immediacy and student learning. Communication Education, 39, 46-62.

Titsworth, B. S. (2001). Immediate and delayed effects of interest cues and engagement cues on students’ affective learning.Communication Studies, 52(3), 169-179.

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