Think back to your school days. Picture your favorite teacher. Now, picture your best friend’s favorite teacher. Chances are that they had something in common. They were funny.
Indeed, some of our funniest teachers may just have been the “best” for more reasons than one. Studies now show that laughter and happiness increase learning and memory. Dopamine is released when we are happy and oxygenation increases when we laugh, both of which stimulate the learning process. This makes humor a powerful tool for teachers.
The Science Behind It All
The newly emerging field of Mind, Brain, and Education science (MBE) represents a cross-section of neuroscience, education, and psychology. Laughter is just one subject, among many, that has been put under the microscope as MBE science is developing. Understanding the chemical effects of laughter on the brain can help educators recognize the significant impact this may have on learning.
MBE science aims to develop the best teaching practices, utilizing research from neuroscience and psychology. MBE topics cover the gamut from mind-body connection to reading interventions, from time management to classroom management, among many other subjects. This new approach to education can lead to exciting discoveries in each area: the study of the brain, psychology, and education.
The Brain on Laughter
Laughter, as seen from the MBE approach, has an impact on both the brain and body. For instance, the medical profession has identified healing properties in laughter. The appearance of laughter therapy and even laughter yoga has become more commonplace in our times. Laughter therapy is a way to provide relief from emotional and physical pain and stress. This new therapy is even being used in conjunction with cancer treatments.
Cancer Treatment Centers of America cite studies that indicate that laughter provides physical benefits, such as boosting the immune system, enhancing oxygenation to the heart and lungs, relaxing muscles, releasing endorphins that subdue pain, improving blood pressure, stimulating cognitive functions, and soothing stomach irritation. Laughter yoga, much like laughter therapy, is touted as an antidote to chronic conditions such as depression, high blood pressure, and even asthma. However, laughter is not just a cure for those who are ill. Research is proving the physical and psychological benefits that laughter provides, and it also has positive implications for education.
In her book, Mind, Brain, and Education Science, professor and educational researcher Tracey Tokuhama-Espinosa suggests that laughter enhances our learning experiences:
Laughter triggers the release of endorphins and enhances oxygenation in the brain, both of which aid in learning.
She cites recent studies which suggest that laughter triggers memory, helping us to better remember those experiences and ideas connected to moments in which we find ourselves chuckling. Imagine that! The more you laugh, the more likely it is that you will remember whatever is linked to that moment.
Furthermore, there are changes in hormones that occur during times of laughter. Just as we know that happiness induces the flow of dopamine, it also augments our learning. Happiness and laughter, intricately tied together, serve to enhance memory and concentration.
In Flourishing in the First Five Years, Donna Wilson and Marcus Conyers stress the importance that optimism plays in the classroom. Teachers are encouraged to promote positive feelings. Laughter is clearly a positive feeling, which allows teachers to provide an invigorating learning environment. Not only do children look forward to classrooms where humor is a part of the daily routine, but they actually learn better from the positivity that laughter creates.
Laughter is now being thought of as similar to exercise and movement within the classroom. What was once frowned upon is now recognized to be highly valuable to the learning environment. In fact, Tracey Tokuhama-Espinosa names laughter as a tenet of MBE science, along with exercise and movement. Maybe there is a reason that some kids just can’t sit still in class? Perhaps their brains and bodies know just what they need to absorb more information. What about that class clown, was he on to something?
Now, the discovery of the positive effects of laughter and movement in the classroom doesn’t necessarily mean that all children who can’t sit still or all class clowns are on the right track. Every case is obviously different. However, it does give us better insight into the “whys” of what occurs when students laugh and fidget in the classroom. It also enables educators to work to create the best learning environment possible for their students.
What are the practical ramifications of such studies on laughter? How can educators, and parents alike, make the most of this research? We learn that every tiny detail and experience inside (and outside) of the classroom and home makes a difference. As neuroscientist Manfred Spitzer says:
The brain is always learning–as it cannot function any other way.
A person’s brain functions best based on ideal timing and conditions, which help us to make the most of our learning. Understanding how the brain works allows us to create environments that are stimulating for our children. Researchers are not suggesting that teachers drop lesson plans in favor of comedy skits. However, creating a relaxed environment, sprinkled with laughter, can actually cause students to not only enjoy coming to class, but to retain what teachers work so hard to instill.
Perhaps teaching methods should incorporate humor. Perhaps teachers should welcome humorous comments (albeit appropriate and relevant to the discussion) from students. Perhaps a relaxing educational environment will allow humor to flourish. Not only that, but maybe, teachers should consider making time for laughter in their teaching schedules. For example, it might be pertinent to start classes off with a funny anecdote. Or, maybe, giving students a “laughing” transition between one topic and the next can be a perfect place for that pithy anecdote. Teachers can block out three minutes of time where they share a funny article, illustration, etc. As research suggests, those three minutes of “laughter time” can actually increase what students retain from lessons. Educators should also be cognizant of highly stressful times for students, such as before an exam, and use humor to reduce the anxiety of the situation. This will allow students to retain more of what is going in the lesson and participate in the here and now.
Tips for Integrating Humor in the Classroom
The National Education Association (NEA) advocates using humor in classrooms. They suggest using “games, parody, or comical voices (or wigs or hats)” to bring meaning and freshness to content. Some teachers use humor as part of their lesson plans, bringing in funny examples of their subject matter. English teacher Tracee O. made a Pinterest board of real-life examples of funny grammatical errors to teach her lessons. Other teachers relate how they intersperse comical facial expressions, voices, or stories into their teaching day.
Rutgers Professor of Psychology, Maurice Elias, author of “Using Humor in the Classroom” also gives examples of how to apply the humorous approach. He suggests creating bulletin boards for funny quotes and illustrations shared by teacher and students, placing humorous items on exams and assignments, encouraging students to bring in jokes for transition periods, and asking students to discuss some of their favorite comedic books.
Nevertheless, the American Psychological Association (APA) cautions against overdoing laughter to the point that students are distracted from the purpose of the lesson. Instead, when humor is applied correctly and in the appropriate times and amounts, it can stimulate interest in subject matter outside of the classroom. Students may actually seek out “homework” for themselves, because teachers have generated interest in a particular topic. Dr. Ron Berk, author and educator, uses musical skits to teach his biostatistics course. The result is that more students leave exhilarated with the (all too often boring) subject-matter and prepared to apply it in real life.
Teachers should also to remember to be careful in how humor is applied in the classroom. Chad Donohue calls our attention to making sure humor is always used in a respectful manner. He makes the point of telling fellow educators never to use laughter to single out or belittle a student. While this should go without saying, it is important that the sensitivities of all students are understood and that humor is used appropriately. Donahue chooses to create a relaxed atmosphere in his classroom, where students feel at ease, and he uses humor to do this:
In more than 20 years of teaching students ranging from as young as 12 to as old as 70, I have found one thing to be verifiably true: Humor positively impacts the learning environment.
Returning to your school days and that favorite teacher of yours…The APA proposes that it was, indeed, most likely the funny one: “Research suggests that students rate professors who make learning fun significantly higher than others.”
Humorous teachers have mastered the art of making learning fun. More importantly, when humor is applied correctly, humorous teachers can come to master the art of making learning memorable and significant.