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Humor as a teaching tool

December 24, 2017

Back at in Rutland, Vermont this week for Christmas vacation, I had the pleasure of visiting one of my old Rutland High School teachers, Mr. Peterson.

My wife, with her usual incisiveness, asked me whether there were any aspects of my teaching style that I could attribute to Mr. Peterson’s influence.

It’s a hard question, since my teaching style is derived from that of many other instructors as well as my own personality and abilities. But my best guess is that Mr. Peterson, more than any other teacher I’ve had before or since, showed me how humor could be used to enhance students’ engagement and learning.

A lot of teachers have a funny side to them, and sprinkle witty asides into their lectures. Mr. Peterson did this. But his humor was often an integral part of the learning experience, rather than a mere tangent. In one session of his “Nature of Man” class, he played the role of a future archaeologist who exhumed the remains of the 20th-century USA (which he pronounced “OOH-sah”) and reached all sorts of wildly inaccurate conclusions about its culture. As I recall, his analysis concluded triumphantly that the religion of the USA people must have centered around the toilets found in every home. In the context of that class, it was a hilarious moment, but the hilarity underscored the key take-away of the lesson, i.e., that cultural artifacts may be interpreted in ways that are logical and internally consistent, yet very, very wrong.

Mr. Peterson’s exams often included multiple-choice questions in which one answer choice was a joke. The joke answers can be seen as tiny gifts to students — easy-to-eliminate choices that also provided a chuckle. But I suspect that Mr. Peterson had in mind a larger message too — something along the lines of, “This test is not a perfect assessment of your ability to apply this material in the real world, so don’t take it TOO seriously.” And that message is an important one for GPA-focused students (like, say, me 27 years ago). Grades are important, but they shouldn’t be considered the be-all and end-all.

To this day, thanks in part to Mr. Peterson’s example, I aim to use humor in a way that contributes to (rather than distracts from) my students’ learning.

Here are a couple of favorite examples from the fall, when I was student teaching at St. John Catholic School.

In 6th grade, we emphasized the differences between viruses and bacteria, which inspired this cartoon (included on a quiz).
viruses versus bacteria

For the 8th graders, my cell biology test included this question about the pioneering genetic work of Augustinian monk Gregor Mendel:

9. A legitimate concern about Gregor Mendel’s work was that
a. As a monk, he explained most of his findings by saying, “That’s just the way God wants it.”
b. He only studied pea plants, which no one cares about.
c. He studied traits that were controlled by many genes and thus could not be explained well with the methods available at the time.
d. His assistants’ pollination methods were sloppy and resulted in pollen being sprayed everywhere, with fertilization occurring willy-nilly.
e. His experimental data matched theoretical ratios even more closely than they should have.

(Correct answer: E.) I’d like to think that Mr. Peterson — and some of my old science teachers, such as Mr. Welch and Dr. D — would have appreciated that one.

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