A Man Walked into a Bar: humour, space, self-deprecation, #activelearning

In this post I explore the pedagogy of humour in the context of higher education teaching and learning and begin to realise there’s more to humour in the classroom than having a bit of fun!

Laughter (photo by Jackaylor Toni on Unsplash.com)

This was my starting point, realising that I like to quickly gain the trust of an audience, especially where I may be a new face to them. Humour is risky though and can easily backfire. I am careful enough (or lucky? Or insensitive? Oblivious?…) because I don’t think I have overstepped the mark, but have seen others crash, with the best of intentions, resulting in a deathly silence at best. Self-awareness, then, is important in thinking about the academic performance and the ethical responsibilities that need to be managed in the classroom while lightening the mood.

There’s a lot to go at here and I realise this post is likely to be the first of several as I consider humour and,

  • engagement, approachability, trust, and release of tension
  • wit, intellectual fluency, intelligence, and self-evaluation
  • in-jokes, jesting and banter
  • inclusivity, empathy, emotional intelligence
  • taking risks – self-deprecation, irony, and ridicule
  • performance, the role of surprise, and revelation
  • active learning roles, play, personalities and persona

And much more, I am sure. Having said that, it is an under-researched area in higher education.

Humour for engagement

In Henri Bergson’s essay Laughter (1900), he describes how laughter can release tension,

“Freud suggests that humor is generated by the pleasure in stimulating others, and/or by the desire to release emotions.”

I have also seen self-mockery as a form of whit. Indeed, I am partial to this. However, this is potentially self-defeating because it can puzzle those who expect and need you to be serious and reliable. I think this strategy is best when an audience knows you and your foibles well. It implies something about the audience – not just you: “I’m prepared to talk about my weaknesses because I know you have weaknesses too and that’s OK.” It may be better to just say that and avoid being hoisted by your own petard. Selecting when to use humour, how much, and how extreme it is, is where we need to focus as performers – it’s all about timing. Well, not quite, but that management of interludes of relief as part of an engagement mix is useful to think about.

Performance and persona and the need to ‘edutain’ and instil some drama into today’s lecture theatre or classroom is in the mind of most academics when they deploy humour to gain the necessary attention to teach (Tait et al., 2015).

To be humorous and light-hearted requires practised stand up comedic skills or, as is likely to be the case with educators, a fluency and understanding of the situation and a wit.

How many teachers does it take to change a lightbulb?

I couldn’t continue without asking, “how many teachers does it take to change a lightbulb?” But why? And should I have asked the question?

It feels like a good thing to do because my audience will recognise the standard format. But who is ‘my’ audience? Am I unwittingly excluding people who have not encountered this before? There is no malice intended in the posing of the question but, for the uninitiated, they don’t know this. So there becomes a tendency to explain jokes (never a good thing). By the way, I have included some answers to the question at the end of this piece.

Humour comes with a cultural bias – especially ‘in-jokes’ which can be extreme, implying expectation for complicity. However, like jargon, in-jokes can signal unity and ‘being in the know’ and, therefore, can be powerful indicators of a functioning community. Pedagogically, designing a humorous process (one with obvious faults to the insider for example) takes us towards some interesting possibilities – slapstick pedagogy! But it all feels dangerous and brings the possibility of adding to the tension.

Before moving on from making use of common frames of reference, I was chairing our Course Leaders Conference last Friday. Due to multiple unforeseen circumstances I found myself having to reorder the whole programme on the hoof. When the programme slide came up, to release the tension (my tension!) I said, unplanned, “All this is happening, but not necessarily in the right order!” A reference to the Eric Morecambe/Andre Previn sketch from the 1970s. It made me smile, but I have no idea if, for example, our many Asian staff or younger staff will have understood the reference. Well, it made me feel better and I hope my smile helped to put people at their ease. Sometimes it is worth the risk and, even though explanations can be self-defeating, humour exists within a greater context in which trust-building happens.

Playing with knowledge

More positively I’d like to shift the focus from teaching to learning and think about humour as a pedagogy and what students bring to class.

Teachers know how different our students are. They all bring themselves in glorious Technicolor and this can be a joy, or it can be tiresome and trying. But students need opportunities to express and discover themselves. For example, on a Computing course where I was teaching a module on Innovation, I was having real problems with the ‘classroom clown’ – you grit your teeth and mutter to yourself, “They’ve got a bit of growing up to do.” A comedian takes pride in how they deal with hecklers, but usually this is a matter of mutual put downs being exchanged. That’s not appropriate in class obviously. Eventually, if you are lucky, you realise that, by spending time with the individual, they have strengths that can be mined. I have found that these students are usually outgoing if nothing else and you can work up a healthy good fun relationship with them winning them friends in class, providing a laugh and a sense of joy, and generally bringing the class into a positive frame. This was the case in the Computing class. We built a strong rapport and, from week to week, we enjoyed a good-humoured exchange.

Turning to pedagogic methods, focusing on fun and humour can lead to entertaining activities. Here are a few brief examples:

  • using humorous distractors or answers in in-class multiple choice polls
  • Setting a limerick as a feedback method for a group breakout session rather than a standard “tell me what you discussed”
  • Assigning behaviour-types in a role play activity, e.g. be sad, angry, flamboyant, etc
  • Using absurd problems or scenarios to explore concepts rather than highly authentic ones
  • using 10 second ‘wrong-handed’ ugly drawing activities to encourage the ‘non-artists’ to capture the essence of a group activity – then asking members of other groups to explain what it is meant to be communicating (it’s fun and, surprisingly, interrogations lead to deep inter-group sharing)
  • Anything that involves making collages, pipe cleaners, glitter (etc)!

Once you stop to think about bringing humour into your pedagogy you realise there is so much you can do. Of course there has to be some serious learning in all that fun but this can come out of the playing. Using a game of snap where each card includes a set of symbols that have real meaning or rolling a dice to decide who must answer a question or using a modified dice to change a variable in a learning scenario all shift the tone of the activity and help to promote interactivity.

Longer playful learning activities can be devised too. Modifications of TV programmes like ‘Would I Lie to You?’ (2 true answers, 1 false proposed by a student with a poker face) or a Sherlock Holmes deduction activity in which a set of clues in various media are presented along with a set of questions – the group has to resolve the mystery. The humour and enjoyment comes from the social intrigue rather that the ‘telling of jokes’ in these cases.

Breaking down barriers

The use of humour and fun in class is all about breaking down barriers and making learning more accessible. This must work for everyone, but it is a good lesson in itself – students need to know learning is fun and enjoyable and that being with others working on problems, in class and in later life, should feel good, not only challenging.

Lightbulbs and teachers

The following answers come from Barrypopik.com – please add yours to the comments:

  • ‘None, that’s what students are for.’
  • ‘None, but they can make dim ones brighter.’
  • ‘I’m not going to just tell you, you need to work it out for yourself.’
  • ‘None, there’s no budget for lightbulbs.’


Bergson, H. (1900). Laughter: an essay on the meaning of the comic.

Bruner, R. (2002). Transforming thought: the role of humor in teaching. Present Value: An Informal Column on Teaching

Garner, R. L. (2006). Humor in Pedagogy: How Ha-Ha Can Lead to Aha! College Teaching, 54(1), 177–180. http://www.jstor.org/stable/27559255

Tait, G., Lampert, J., Bahr, N., & Bennett, P. (2015). Laughing with the lecturer: the use of humour in
shaping university teaching. Journal of University Teaching & Learning Practice, 12(3).


About Andrew Middleton

NTF, PFHEA, committed to active learning, co-operative pedagogies, media-enhanced teaching and learning, authentic learning, postdigital learning spaces. Key publication: Middleton, A. (2018). Reimagining Spaces for Learning in Higher Education. Palgrave.
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