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Sunday, 24 March 2013

Musings on the pedagogical uses of laughter....

One of the most important things in teaching is building a relationship with your students. I always think things are going well with a class if they can laugh at/with me in a good natured way AND I can laugh at them (just a little bit of course).

Both of my current year 11 classes are pretty good at this.One class recently described me as "like a really funny Mum", which I took as a compliment, even though I'm only 10 years older than them and couldn't possibly be their mother. A student in the other class recently said "Miss, you should do that thing where teachers go on TV and teach difficult kids. I'd definitely watch you." I thought this was quite a big compliment, so I made the mistake of asking why. "Oh because you're really funny when you're cross".  Ah. That swiftly deflated my ego!*

Laughing at someone else is easy, but laughing at yourself takes real character. Even as adults, not everyone can do it. I have recently realised that some of the friends and family I admire most are people who can laugh at themselves and don't take themselves too seriously.

I'm pleased to say that most of my y11s seem to have this character trait. One of the most able students that I teach (and one of the most confident) stared at a distance time graph recently and shouted across the room "Miss this scale is all wrong. It makes no sense. It goes one thousand, one thousand and thirty, one thousand one hundred, one thousand one hundred and thirty. What is it doing?" Rather than give her the answer, I just burst out laughing. "You'll find it funny when you realised what you've done" I said. "Read the question again" (It was a distance time graph, so the scale actually read 10.00, 10.30, 11.00, 11.30). Similarly, in the other y11 class I asked the girls what the letter D stood for in 2D and 3D. "I know!" shouted one student "Dime... Dim..... Dementia?" To which I burst out laughing as well (along with the rest of the class). Again, in a great show of character, she took it on the chin and laughed along with the others.

We ask our students to cope with criticism every day. They are constantly being told how to improve their work, or being asked to correct their mistakes and think about which topics they need to revise. It can't be easy. In my first term doing a history degree at Oxford I felt completely out of my depth and I knew I was handing in rubbish work. I was so embarrassed that I couldn't bear to read the pages of comments my tutor wrote on every essay. If I had done, I would probably have improved much more quickly. As it was, it took about 3 months before a different tutor took me to task and verbally went through how I could make my writing better. She described the next week's essay as "a transformation".

By encouraging students to laugh at themselves when they have made a mistake, we can help them see that making mistakes is part of learning. But to have that sort of atmosphere in the classroom, we need to let them laugh at us too. Using humour in the classroom is a risky strategy, but I think that when it pays off, it's hugely worthwhile.


* To re-assure readers that I'm not a complete idiot in the classroom, I am hardly ever genuinely "cross" with this class, because they are really nice. Instead, I tend to say things like "if you haven't brought your calculator I'm going to give you a dirty look" and I pull a face at them. 

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