Information Age Education
   Issue Number 124
October, 2013   

This free Information Age Education Newsletter is written by Dave Moursund and Bob Sylwester, and produced by Ken Loge. The newsletter is one component of the Information Age Education project.

All back issues of the newsletter and subscription information are available online. In addition, three free books based on the newsletters are available: Consciousness and Morality: Recent Research Developments, Creating an Appropriate 21st Century Education, and Common Core State Standards for Education in America.

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

Shirley Trout
Teachable Moments Publishing

Posted in classroom:

Dear Students,

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 setting.

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 foundation.

Superiority Theory

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

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

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:

On July 11, 2009, Taylor Mali posted a passionate YouTube video intended to motivate educators to value their intrinsic role as influencers of hearts and minds. See

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 died out.”

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!

Special Attention

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 ( and the Association for Applied and Therapeutic Humor ( 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 effectively.


Bardon, A. (2005). The Philosophy of Humor. In Comedy: A Geographic and Historical Guide.  Charney, M., ed. Greenwood Press. Retrieved from:

Bergson, H., 1911 [1900]. 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, Williamsburg, VA.

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 website,, 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

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