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Learning And Laughter: Using Humour As An Educational Tool

Posted on: Saturday 23 August 2014 10:18am by Sai Pathmanathan

 Sai Pathmanathan produced the session ‘Learning and Laughter‘ at CMC 2014 – part of the new Learning@Heart strand of the Conference.  This session is also available as a podcast.

Here Sai takes a look at what was discussed and the place for comedy in pursuit of the curriculum.

‘Laughter is the shortest distance between two people.’ Victor Borge.

We all love a good joke, and humour is an important part of media for all ages. But what about in learning? Recently, at the Children’s Media Conference in Sheffield, a distinguished panel of informal and formal science educators and neuroscientists discussed how humour is used in children’s media, what it means in educational settings and what laughter is really about?

Photo: Jonathan Sanderson. Identity of series withheld to protect the innocent.

The scene was set by moderator, Jonathan Sanderson, Director of StoryCog, with his own comical adventures in children’s television. Jonathan fell into television more-or-less by accident, specialising in popular children’s factual shows. He produced the classic series How2 and The Big Bang for CITV, with his worst series (in his opinion) receiving a BAFTA nomination! He was also behind the world’s first (and hopefully only) ten-part Key Stage Two location-costume-drama-sketch-comedy series about mathematics.

Children’s media whether on television, tablet or the big screen, provide hours of entertainment for children all over the world. They will happily enjoy animations and comment upon what they have learnt, for example that squids release ink (Disney Pixar’s Finding Nemo) or that male penguins look after the egg (Warner Bros.’ Happy Feet). Whilst entertainment professionals aren’t in the education business, their ‘knowledge dissemination’ often occurs as a by-product of wanting to be credible. Children’s factual entertainment however tends to be humorous, entertaining and accurate, and therefore can be readily utilised within the classroom.

Rani Price, television presenter and creator of Crafty Science early years workshops, says that she’s either on TV or in nurseries making children laugh whilst learning. When faced with twelve pre-schoolers in a workshop, Rani finds that too much humour can distract from the information. She has to be friendly and easy to approach, but being too funny with such young children can end with a presenter losing control of the situation. No learning takes place, and the presenter can end up sitting through countless stories of visiting friends and seeing a dog eat a biscuit!

For informal science workshops, Rani learnt that it’s better to hand over the humour to the children. ‘Give them the control to find the funny in what they’re doing.’ Children laugh freely when they’re at ease, their laughter modulates the mood, the environment is less stressful and they feel confident enough to ask questions.

The next panelist, Simon Kerrigan, Assistant Head of Science at Netherthorpe School, Derbyshire, has been teaching science and psychology for over fifteen years. He uses entertaining media in lessons to enhance his pupils’ learning experience.

Most of us expect humour in children’s media but when it comes to formal schooling some believe that education should not be fun. Early into his career, Simon was told, ‘Never smile until Christmas’, i.e. don’t be too friendly with the students as this could lead to discipline problems. Simon soon realised that it was the rapport between himself and his students that would result in successful teaching and learning, and that only bored students were likely to misbehave. No learning can take place if students are bored. The power of laughter can result in a positive effect on engagement, attention and memory consolidation. Children who inherently like science need little help to progress further. Those who show an interest or even those who have no interest whatsoever are the ones who can be ‘hooked’ by great teaching. It’s about engaging those likely to be disengaged.

Humour is an important tool of engagement, and Simon touched upon the use of jokes. ‘How do you turn a duck into a soul singer?…Put it in the microwave until it’s Bill Withers.’ After a few groans and chuckles from the audience, he told us about the link to education. The importance of anticipating the punchline, just like forming a scientific hypothesis, recall and decision-making, are all skills in science that can be nurtured through using humour and laughter in learning. These humorous elements can humanise the teacher, and make the students more willing to relate to the teacher and their peers.

Both Rani and Simon agreed that you can bring the fun of television into the classroom, that showing footage can be the perfect way to explore ideas and visualise concepts. Simon showed two clips from Sky’s Brainiac. One demonstrated the reactivity of the alkali metals (huge explosions!) and the other showed Eric Knowles from the Antiques Roadshow being electrocuted while handling expensive antiques. Both were entertaining, but there was no learning in the latter clip, it just distracted viewers’ attention from the science. Simon is wary of the media used in schools. Educators need to make sure children don’t end up assuming ‘dull science’ is being ‘dressed up as fun’, i.e. a ‘chocolate-coated broccoli’ scenario. They may laugh, but what have they learnt?

Interestingly, Brainiac producers staged the alkali metals clip, producing explosions for the camera, where there would have been none in reality. Jonathan asked whether this matters? Whose responsibility is it to teach children accurate science? Perhaps the entertainment factor and relevance to science lessons is enough from the media-side while the educator explains the real science. The importance of practical science (as seen in Demo: The Movie), is that teachers and students work together and ‘see’ the science for real – this is where the magic happens, regardless of what is seen on screen. And there’s nothing like a good practical to elicit fun, smiles and even laughter!

The final panelist, Professor Sophie Scott, Wellcome Trust Senior Research Fellow at UCL’s Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, researches speech, communication and laughter. Sophie told us, ‘members of the Himba tribe of Northern Namibia use ‘aiy-aiy-aiy’ as a triumphant call, where we may use ‘woo hoo’ and yet neither group would be able to interpret and understand each other’s sounds. But laughter is a truly, cross-cultural emotion with everyone in the world able to recognise laughter and understand the emotions behind it.’

Laughter is a social, interactive behaviour and we’re more likely to laugh when meeting with friends, than when on the phone with them. We laugh when we like someone and want them to know we like them. Despite whether or not what they say is funny. It might just be a statement about how they need to catch a bus, but if we like them, we give them our laughter. Likewise when children like a presenter or teacher, they will laugh and be receptive.

Individual tastes and age matter in the case of humour. Younger viewers prefer slapstick and ‘toilet humour’, whereas older viewers prefer wordplay and sarcasm. Age-appropriate humour is therefore important in education too. Children are not going to engage with supposedly humorous content if they do not find it funny. And context is equally significant. Sophie mentioned that if you are living in filth, surrounded by poo, you are not going to find poo jokes amusing.

Learing and laughterThis session provided a quick insight into humour and laughter in learning, and how children’s factual entertainment media could help children learn science. Humour can be extremely effective in the classroom having a positive effect on students’ attention and attitude when teaching science. It can inspire and motivate, relaxing students and reducing anxiety therefore allowing for meaningful learning. Laughter is important to connect audiences with the presenter or educator, thereby engaging and even empowering children.

Sai Pathmanathan

About the author

Sai Pathmanathan

Freelance, Science Education Consultant

Sai was a neuroscientist, but decided to pursue a career in science communication and education. She has worked in science education at The Physiological Society, NESTA, Planet Science, Science in School, Ignite! and Queen Mary University of London. Sai’s MA research looking into how young people learn accurate science from… Read more

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