Break the Humour Code: Laugh and the Class Learns With You

“A good laugh is rather too scarce.”

—Herman Melville

Humour lightens up the classroom and energises learning in at least four major teaching and learning areas.

Humour Primes Students’ Brains to Learn

The best high school science teacher I ever came across claimed that his success was partly because he constantly judged the work level of the class and as it slipped. In order to reinvigorate them, he told a joke. When I was an active teacher, I did the same. My friend Kevin Boyce primes his high school students at the start of each class to snap them out of the digital world back to the reality of the classroom.

How does this set up for teaching and learning? Research on humour is relatively recent and not particularly broad. But already, it points to several ways in which each student’s mind is primed for learning after enjoying a humourous moment.

With laughter, the feel-good brain chemical, dopamine, along with other endorphins, is released. This introduces feelings of euphoria, which are then transferred to the teacher, the schoolwork being done, their peers, the school and even beyond. This is a powerful reward system, inclined, as rewards do, to greater effort.

The pulse rate drops, calming the students. Oxygen in the blood is increased raising the energy level. Overall high-level thinking skills are promoted. One of these is anticipation and finding novel relationships, so the brain is alert to looking for improving its actions and therefore, results.

Simultaneously, the toxic brain and body chemical cortisol is shut down or severely reduced. It flourishes when stress appears. If left to flourish, it can interrupt the transmission of messages within the brain, and accelerate the fight, flee or freeze response, so that students give up.

Social relationships have been commented on as well in research, but under this heading, groups become more cohesive and self-activating. The self-activating response increases the teaching and learning.

Humour Builds Camaraderie and Rapport, Creating Doers

The humour doesn’t have to be high level. Thirty or so years ago, I had as my Senior Leader, Kevin, a colleague who liked to use puns. This bonding and humour have been lifelong. Recently, I put an item on Facebook:

Me: A new report says we eat apples the wrong way. The healthiest bits are in the core, including the seeds.

Kevin: This has app peal. Core. Have you got the Pip?

Me: How long did you have to chew over that one?

Kevin: One, Two, Tree times!

My wife is the school administrator for a collection of activities: First aid and the sick bay, distributing various pills and portions at the correct time, lost property and more. Meeting an former student at the supermarket, she explains she has lost her voice. The former student snaps back, “Have you looked in the lost property?”

It is the last day of the school year and the last day for me to meet with my class. They hand me a parcel which seems to be a book. As I start to unwrap it, there are giggles and sniggers breaking out. I am finally able to read the title: The Cracker Jack Joke Book. Laughter explodes. There is bonding here but I am not sure it isn’t a humorous coded message, “Could do better!”

My old secondary school includes these as pillars of learning:

  • To make time for each other is possibly the most important of these. To quote Costa and Kallick, “The individual interacts with others to construct knowledge…The individual influences the group and the group influences the individuals.” As in the other two, this is ongoing. It does not happen only in the classroom. Moreover, it extends lifelong beyond school as I have illustrated above. Nor is it restricted to the academic skills, but also to the social and emotional skills, too. The strap line, to be better than before, extrapolates this.
  • Acquiring academic excellence is the second of these. I have commented on this above.
  • Cultural enrichment is the third. We are a multicultural country as are most other western countries. Understanding and interacting beyond our culture with many cultures is a requirement of responsible citizenship.

When the brain is primed with the feel-good brain chemical dopamine, the toxic brain chemical cortisol is subdued or banished. Moreover, our brains are energised to utilise higher level thinking skills such as anticipation. This opens the way to automatically scan for roads less travelled, and in doing, clearly view alternatives to enhance development of the pillars above, or other desirable ventures. To quote Captain Kirk from Star Trek, humour gives us the courage, “To boldly go where no man has gone before!”

By Impacting the Social Intelligences, Humour Boosts Individual and Group Intelligence

Intrapersonal intelligence, or the ability to understand the intentions, motivations, and desires of other people and consequently to work effectively with them, is a crucial ingredient of an effective classroom. The other social intelligence, Interpersonal is about understanding oneself to the extent of having a working model and using that information effectively in regulating one’s own behaviour. Humour is one way of providing fuel for these intelligences.

Our principal at my Teachers’ College gave us this advice at our last assembly, “Take your job seriously but yourself, not so seriously.” These two personal intelligences are the key to doing this. Humour will add the process.

Humour is a Mindset Mover

Humour is also a powerful growth mindset mover. Because it is not directly related to the academic side of the curriculum it is able to remove or at least downplay any fixed mindset movers lurking. Costa and Kallick, in their book, Dispositions Reframing Teaching and Learning, have this to say: “Humour appears to be a universal coping mechanism we use when faced with stress.”

Thus, humour is an antidote to a fixed mindset, because it can change the climate, the culture of the classroom and the school to a climate where failure is only a learning experience, leaving it is safe to acknowledge it and try another approach. Stress is pushed out by the warmth of the classroom and all those in it. Camaraderie and rapport envelop all.

The school is the sea. The students are the fish. If the sea is not kept at the right temperature the fish will die. Using humour will help ensure that the temperature is at the right level.


Alan Cooper is an educational consultant based in New Zealand. As a principal, he was known for his leadership role in thinking skills, including Habits of Mind, learning styles and multiple intelligences, information technology, and the development of the school as a learning community. Alan can be contacted at

Read more from Alan Cooper.


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