Stritch Magazine

Trend: A funny thing happened on the way to the classroom

Friday, January 24, 2014 4:25:00 PM

by Scott Rudie, '05
Illustration by Naomi Kaufman, '07, '12

Johnny Carson, the late comedian and long-time host of NBC’s “The Tonight Show,” once observed, “People will pay more to be entertained than educated."

Without denying the possible truth of such a statement, Dr. Peter Jonas, professor in the leadership program at Stritch, has spent years researching a response to Carson’s observation. Jonas’ retort?  “Why can’t you do both?”

Jonas vividly recalls attending what he anticipated to be yet another “boring research conference” many years ago. The topic of the conference was “institutional research in higher education.” Jonas, Stritch’s director of institutional research at the time, dutifully attended but had few if any expectations that the conference or topic would be engaging.

But a funny thing happened: he found the presentation highly engaging, enlivened by a presenter who effectively used humor to enhance the rather dry subject matter.

“Several weeks later I found that I remembered his speech,” Jonas said. “That’s when I became interested in the power of humor and how we can remember things a lot longer if humor is connected with it.”

That simple but highly relevant fact continued to intrigue Jonas, and in subsequent years he gradually devoted more of his attention to the topic of humor and learning. When Jonas later became a faculty member in the College of Education and Leadership, he embarked upon some intensive research on the topic.

Jonas pored over dissertations, books, and articles and found an opportunity for new and original research.

“There was a lot of research on why people laugh, but there wasn’t nearly as much on how humor can help people learn,” he said.

Humor, engagement, and even excitement

As a result of his research, Jonas formulated two primary conclusions. First, people will remember new concepts and ideas longer if the learning is connected to humor. Secondly, the humor must be firmly connected to the overarching topic in order for the brain to make that lasting connection.

The research ultimately served as the basis for two books: “Secrets of Connecting Leadership and Learning to Humor” (2004) and “Laughing and Learning:  An Alternative to Shut Up and Listen” (2009).

Jonas believes that humor can be the key not only to improving the classroom, but also can be used to enhance presentations in any environment. In the books, Jonas explores the ways in which humor can be used to make leadership, learning and presentations more exciting.

Jonas identified eight categories in which humor had a positive effect on learning. Those include:

• Culture and environment
• Instruction
• Relationships and teamwork
• Communication
• Stress
• Creativity and divergent thinking
• Student behavior
• Teachers’ interest at work

Jonas’ work has helped to validate a truth that had previously been only a simple “trick of the trade” for educators: that appropriate humor at the appropriate time has a profound effect on student engagement.

Gina Haughton, assistant professor and chair of the Master of Arts in Teaching program (Madison region) at Stritch, deeply understands that essential fact, both as a student in Stritch’s doctoral program and especially as a teacher and advisor to future K-12 teachers.

“I teach adults who are in a classroom, often times without windows, for four hours at night after a long day of work,” she said. “You have to keep them engaged, and I use humor to do so. I tell my students that, ‘This class is four hours long, but if I do my job, it will feel like an hour and a half.’

Haughton’s philosophy underscores one of Jonas’ essential points: The use of humor must be intentional and strategic. It is never about being funny just for the sake of being funny

“I plan everything out,” he said. “I plan every joke out, using videos and cartoons that connect to the topic. I don’t tell jokes just to be funny or to be the center of attention – it’s to build relationships and to deepen the learning.”

Classroom connections through humor

Haughton agrees thathumor aids learning by enhancing classroom dynamics and helping to form relationships with students. For Haughton, this means including humor directly from her own life experience. This helps to humanize the teacher for the students.

“For me, humor is intentional and also very natural,” she said. “My humor is less about joke telling and more about storytelling. My life is hilarious; I should have my own reality show! So I bring in stories, mostly about my husband and his missteps in life, to help scaffold their learning, and it gives me a chance to help build a relationship with them.”

Consequently, humor also can put students at ease, which is especially helpful if the subject matter is challenging, Jonas said.

“I teach advanced statistics and students are always stressing,” he said. “Humor can help calm them down. And I don’t have to always be the one who is telling jokes; you can let them tell jokes as well.

However, Haughton points out that student engagement can occur through many techniques, and she instructs her student teachers to be true to their own personalities and teaching styles as they become teachers and have their own classrooms.

“It’s less about humor and more about what your gift is,” she said. “Not everyone is funny, and forcing the funny is not a good idea. When my students are writing their lesson plans, I encourage them to be authentic and organic.”

The role of gender in humor

A key element of authenticity is understanding how humor can be perceived differently based upon gender. Women, Jonas said, tend to be more analytical.

“The harder the joke is to get, the more they like it,” he said.

Men, on the other hand, tend to like the sillier kind of humor, a fact that Jonas can personally attest to.

“Knock-knock jokes, light bulb jokes – quick and simple jokes that get a laugh and can be remembered.”

The science of humor

Dr. Terrance Steele, professor of psychology, said that new research is emerging regarding what occurs in the brain when someone is laughing.

“Not much research has been done on the brain and humor, but what has been done is interesting,” he said. “The primary findings are that, just like there are many types of and aspects to humor, there are many areas of the brain that contribute to one’s understanding and appreciation of humorous materials."

There are two areas that become active when a person is exposed to any type of humor, he said. The first are the pleasure areas of the brain.  

“These areas ‘light up’ when one hears a joke or reads a cartoon,” he said.

The second region of the brain that becomes active is part of the prefrontal cortex, which sits immediately above and behind our eyes.

“One responsibility of this region is to process and comprehend complex information which, if you think about it, is just what humor is,” Steele said. “Humor consists of surprising content, often in an unexpected context. So it makes sense this part of the brain would become active."

According to Steele, researchers also have shown there are a number of differences between structures in the right and left halves of our brains. Overall, the left side of our brain, which controls language in most people, appears responsible for our appreciation of the humor that we read or hear.  The right hemisphere of the brain seems to judge the overall humor in situations.

A new understanding of old techniques

While the research and the science behind humor and learning continues to emerge, the notion of using humor to keep students engaged is as old as education itself. Jonas said that the use of humor is a primary characteristic of successful teachers.

In many ways, education has come full circle and humor is an essential element, Haughton said.

“You think about the old one-classroom schoolhouse, with a teacher with many grade levels and many ages; if I were that teacher, I’d pull out all the tricks and all of the stops,” she said. “But then I ask myself, ‘How is that really different from what I’m doing right now?’ I have one classroom with students of different abilities and ages, and I’m still pulling out all the tricks.”

Today, however, Haughton believes many K-12 schools could greatly benefit from a renewed emphasis on fun and humor.

“Unfortunately, much of the humor in K-12 has faded,” she said. “With all of the changes in education lately, and the demand and expectation on the teachers, I definitely understand. But I encourage teachers to, ‘Remember why you wanted to be a teacher, and the passion you had for the job.’ We need to think about how we can take the power away from state and federal mandates and focus on our love of teaching and learning."

Significant areas of this topic remain open for additional research, Jonas said, and he has plans eventually to continue this work. In the interim, Jonas is pleased that so many others within the Stritch faculty, and beyond, have embraced his philosophy of using humor to strategically enhance learning.

Haughton, for one, has made the philosophy her own.

“Schools are not comedy clubs, but I do require a two-laugh minimum,” she said.