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This newsletter is the tenth in a series on complexity. Our
informal and formal educational systems, and our everyday life
experiences, help us learn to deal with the complexities of complexity.
Understanding and Mastering
Complexity: The Complexity of Humor
Teachable Moments Publishing
Posted in classroom:
I know when you’re texting in class.
Seriously, no one just looks down at their crotch and smiles.
Sincerely, Your Teacher
When used skillfully and for the right
purpose, humor can be an effective educational tool in the
understanding of complex problems. However, some forms of humor, such
as pure comedy, typically serve no educational purpose. In contrast,
well-constructed and well-facilitated humor has considerable potential
to enhance learning. Humor is complex, and must to be understood in
order to be used effectively.
Humor differs from laughter. Laughter is a physiological expression
that may result from humorous reactions, but humor is not necessary to
elicit laughter. Similarly, not all humor leads to laughter.
Both humor and laughter can occur privately or socially, but of the
two, only humor is cognitive. In fact, Clarke (2009) considers humor
“…less a source of jocularity than a stimulant to cognitive activity …
an information-processing system” (p. 13).
In addition to being cognitive, humor in an educational environment is
a complex social experience. It involves every person present and
involves both sending and receiving the humorous “intervention.” If
sent with malice, one should expect the humor to backfire. If received
differently than intended by the sender, again, expect a
less-than-intended result. Just as Sylwester wrote in his discussion of
caricature (2013), “This illustrates one of the difficulties in
teaching.” In this case, the educator must consider the particular
reason for using humor, as well as the complex reality of each
student’s existence within and outside the classroom as a unique
receiver/interpreter of the humor attempt.
Used ineffectively, humor can lead to mistrust and lack of respect.
Used effectively, however, countless examples have demonstrated that
humor can enhance relationships, build social cohesion, and stimulate
effective learning. Understanding three basic humor theories may
contribute to one’s confidence when using humor in an educational
Three Humor Theories
Bardon (2005) states that, “Humor theory is an
interdisciplinary field that demands contributions from cultural
studies, history, sociology, psychology, neuroscience, and evolutionary
biology, among others” (p. 475). Three long-standing
theories—Superiority, Incongruity, and Relief—serve as a reasonable
Superiority Theory began with laughter. It emerged through the
teachings of such notable philosophers as Plato, Aristotle, and Hobbes
who had long-considered laughter as a demonstration of one’s
superiority over others. In 1900, French philosopher Henri Bergson
suggested, rather, that laughter is “a kind of corrective to ways of
thinking and acting detrimental to the greater good” (Bardon, 2005, p.
12). Contrary to Plato and Aristotle, who devalued humor and laughter,
Bergson appreciated the comic and saw at least some positive social
purpose in laughter. In addition, Bergson introduced the idea that
amusement is a cognitive, rather than an emotional state.
Incongruity Theory argues that, “Humor is found primarily in an
intellectual recognition of an absurd incongruity between conflicting
ideas or experiences” (Bardon, 2005, p 5). Kuiper, Martin and Olinger
(1993) discuss humor as a useful moderator of incongruities.
Comedy writer Greg Dean (1999) teaches that great comedy occurs
in “The Gap” between an individual’s or group’s real or
perceived “reality” and a contrasting real or perceived “ideal”.
Let’s say, for example, that students are particularly anxious
about an upcoming math exam. The Gap model can help them reduce their
anxiety by humorously playing with the reality/ideal situation prior to
the exam. For example, one student may consider her “Reality” as, “I
feel stupid about math,” and her “Ideal” as, “Math is only for smart
people.” Encourage your class to play in the mental space (or gap)
between real and ideal and
to have fun doing it. The student in the example above might then
think, “If I’m so stupid, then why do so many supposedly ‘smart’
kids ask me to help them with their English papers?”
By humorously playing in The Gap, our mind is playfully forced to find
resolution between two incongruent conditions—two “realities” that
cannot occupy the same cognitive or emotional “space,” yet are
inescapably thrust together. The tension created cannot be resolved
without something else stepping in to complete the mental dilemma.
Humor (often accompanied by a chuckle or laugh) is a healthy
method that we humans have.
Relief Theory further explains that very physiological reaction to
the incongruity. This theory, made popular by nineteenth century
philosopher and biological theorist Herbert Spencer in The Physiology of Humor, introduced
laughter into a humor theory. He notes the many ways in which we store
and physically release excess nervous energy. He thus argues that ,
“Laughter is a physical manifestation of the release of nervous energy”
(Bardon, 2005, p. 9).
Nilsen and Pace Nilsen (2013) argue that Incongruity Theory is useful
to educators. In an incongruent situation—whether verbal/auditory,
visual, or cognitive—“We feel tension until we put things right—at
least in our mind’s eye” (Nilsen & Pace Nilsen, 2013, p. 4). The
element of surprise (Rousell, 2013), a component of this theory, helps
to explain how and why humor works to stimulate our mind, while the
incongruity resolution process fosters actual learning.
Humor in Practice
Consider the personal value to an individual teacher:
While most comments commended Mali for his keen articulation, one viewer commented in part:
“Chances are, those teachers you say
are "shitty," were once very eager to teach but have taken so much
bullshit from arrogant assholes and horrible students that the flame
Indeed, many teachers do leave the profession because of “burnout.” In
addition to stressors, many teachers simply get bored by their own
approaches to the same subject matter, year after year.
Humor can be a useful survival skill for individual educators to reduce
stress, keep problems in perspective, keep oneself ever-learning, and
remain appreciative of becoming an educator. Coping humor enhances
mental health (Martin, Kuiper, Olinger, & Dance, 2009).
“Gallows humor” is one type of coping humor. It can be
considered highly inappropriate if shared outside one’s immediate
circle, yet can help a person reframe and move forward in a healthier
frame of mind. For example, after a particularly difficult day dealing
with several parents, one administrator told a colleague, “It’s days
like this that make me wish I were teaching in an orphanage.” Not a
terribly noble comment under normal circumstances, but given the
day—and given the comment was made far from students’ or parents’
ears—an appropriate example of gallows humor.
The Value of Humor to the Learning Environment
By integrating humor, educators keep the learning
environment creative, spontaneous, and fun. Within the learning
environment, countless humor techniques can be used creatively to
provide tremendous insight into students’ thinking and understanding.
And while humor is a cultural construct, it also can be helpful to
bridge cultural differences.
In Humor across the Disciplines, literature
professors Alleen Pace Nilsen and Don Nilsen (2013) presented several
generational incongruities. For example, on a pie chart titled,
“Today’s use of a semicolon,” a sliver was colored orange, and the
balance of the chart was blue. The key indicated: orange = “To separate
sentences” and blue = “To make winky faces ; ).”
Pace Nilsen and Nilsen understand that humor functions on at least two
levels in the classroom: psychological (e.g., to amuse, to test limits,
to bond socially) and intellectual (e.g., to teach, to make
connections, to compare ideas and concepts). Additional scholarship has
found further functions, which, simplistically, can be summarized by
the acronym, PEPSIs: Physiological, Emotional, Psychological,
Social, Intellectual, and even Spiritual. Given the
sender/receiver relationship with humor and the interdisciplinary
nature of the intervention, one can understand the complexity of humor
in the learning environment!
Initially, humor can be tricky in a multicultural classroom. The
context of the humor may not be understood. Students' backgrounds may
not have prepared them for how to reciprocate light-heartedly to a
humorous intervention. Humor in a group requires a considerable level
of trust. Still, when used appropriately, humor can be used as an
effective tool to break through cultural barriers and to build trust.
The key is to: apply humor for the right reasons, be keen to
facilitating for positive outcomes, and constantly build humor skills
that will enhance learning.
Given the holistic nature of humor, educators should remember that
humor, used appropriately, serves as a tremendous teaching tool. Two
international associations lead the study and application of humor: the
International Society for Humor Studies (www.humorstudies.org) and the Association for Applied and Therapeutic Humor (www.aath.org). The
two websites will lead you to useful resources. Given the complex
nature, but also the great potential of humor, professional educators
should seriously seek to enhance their own study of how to use humor
Bergson, H., 1911 . Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic. Brereton, C., & Rothwell, F. (trs.). London: Macmillan.
Clarke, A. (2009). Eight Patterns of Humour. Cumbria, UK: Pyrrhic House.
Dean, G. (1999). A Stand-up Comedy Teacher’s
Techniques for Writing Jokes. Presented at the International Society
for Humor Studies annual conference, July 3, 1999, Holy Names
University, Oakland, CA.
Kuiper, N.A., Martin, R.A., & Olinger, L.J. (1993). Coping Humour, Stress, and Cognitive Appraisals. Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science, 25(1), 81-96.
Martin, R.A., Kuiper, N.A., Olinger, J., &
Dance, K.A. (2009). Humor, Coping with Stress, Self-Concept, and
Psychological Well-being. Humor–International Journal of Humor Research, 6(1), 89-104.
Nilsen, D.L.F., & Pace Nilsen, A. (2013). Humor
Theories. Presented at the International Society for Humor Studies
annual conference, July 2-6, 2013, William & Mary University,
Pace Nilsen, A., & Nilsen, D.L.F. (2013). What
We Learned Teaching HON 394: Humor across the Disciplines. Presented at
the International Society for Humor Studies annual conference, July
2-6, 2013, William & Mary University, Williamsburg, VA.
Rousell, M. (2013). Understanding and Mastering Complexity: Spontaneously Clarifying Complexity. Information Age Education Newsletter, #118.
Sylwester, R. (2013). Understanding and Mastering Complexity: The Role of Caricature. Information Age Education Newsletter, #122.
Shirley K. Trout
Shirley K. Trout, Ph.D., M.Ed., has been designing learner-engaged
curricula for more than three decades. She is owner of Teachable
Moments Publishing, co-developer of the EVATEC model for educational
transformation, and is past president of the Association for Applied
and Therapeutic Humor. She contributed the chapter on Humor
for Complementary and Alternative Therapies in Nursing, 7th
Ed., (Springer Publishing) which will be in released in November. Her
to be launched in late 2013, will be packed with free and low-cost,
practical tools to help educators apply humor and other creative twists
in their respective learning environments. She also conducts boot camps
and coaches educators on how to integrate humor into engaged
classrooms. Dr. Trout can be reached at email@example.com.
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