Chodesh Adar: Does Humor Work in the Classroom?
If you’ve ever been in a class where the teacher makes you laugh or where the teacher is willing to laugh at herself or himself, you’ve probably found that the learning becomes lighter and easier. This may be true in part because the teacher seems more human and approachable, and we tend to learn more from teachers we like. It may also be that laughter and play can free up the brain and bring new insights, promote divergent thinking, help us maintain a high level of attention, and relieve stress and anxiety.
Teachers that use humor — without ridiculing or making light of the subject matter — will find that their students say hello in the hallways, tell stories about what happened in class that reinforce the learning, feel comfortable approaching the teacher to ask questions or for general advice, and regret the discontinuity in learning that happens when they have a substitute teacher. Simply put, they enjoy learning more, and they learn more…even the tough stuff.
With the start of Chodesh Adar (the Jewish month of Adar), it is a good time to ask: Is all of the above actually true? Is there any evidence that suggests that the use of humor in the classroom enhances learning?
Dr. Pete Swanson, a Professor of Foreign Language Education and Coordinator of the Foreign Language Teacher Education programs at Georgia State University, brings evidence that the answer is YES. In fact, it is a quantifiable yes.
In an article that appeared in Foreign Language Annals (Summer 2013, Vol. 46, #2, p. 146-156) entitled “Spanish Teachers’ Sense of Humor and Student Performance on the National Spanish Exams,” he defines the elements of a teacher’s sense of humor: seeing oneself as a humorous person, recognizing humor in others, appreciating humor, laughing, keeping humor in perspective, and using humor to cope. Swanson notes that these elements are interrelated as well as ascertainable.
How do students perform in classes where teachers are assessed as humorous versus those who are not?
Swanson recruited 127 public and private school Spanish teachers to find out. He administered the Multidimensional Sense of Humor Scale to each teacher and then correlated the teachers’ scores to the students’ performance on the National Spanish Exam.
A Marshall Memo report summarizes the findings:
The better teachers’ sense of humor, the better their students did. How big was the difference? From an A- with the more-humorous teacher to a B with the least humorous, or from a B+ to a B-.
Citing previous research on humor, Swanson theorizes about the mechanism: a teacher’s use of humor reduces tension (performance anxiety is a common element in foreign-language classrooms), helps students relax and become better listeners and more diligent workers, improves rapport and classroom climate, increases motivation, enhances self-esteem, promotes higher-level thinking, and facilitates retention. From the teacher’s point of view, Swanson believes humor helps them cope professionally, deal with stress, maintain a positive outlook on teaching, and persevere in the face of setbacks.
Swanson lists a variety of different ways teachers made use of humor in their Spanish classes. Some include:
- Using top 10 lists, jokes, riddles, puns, oxymorons, and malapropisms (the mistaken use of a word that sounds like the correct one);
- Using cartoons and funny graphics and visuals;
- Using comical modifications of a cliché, adage, or maxim;
- Using Tom Swifties with adverbs – “I just love the cheese,” she said sharply;
- Telling amusing personal stories and showing photos of the teacher as an adolescent;
- Using exaggerated gestures and facial expressions and imitating famous people.
It’s Adar. It’s time to take humor seriously!
WHAT DO YOU THINK?
Rabbi Lee Buckman
Rabbi Lee Buckman lives and works in Jerusalem. He is the Executive Director of JEDvision, which provides educational services, consulting, and executive coaching to Jewish organizations and institutions globally. Prior to making aliyah, he served as Head of School at three institutions: TanenbaumCHAT, the Greenfield Hebrew Academy, and the Frankel Jewish Academy. Lee has been a Lookstein Center contributor for more than 10 years. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.