Laughter and Learning

Lots of work and talk these days about social and emotional learning. The need for resiliency, grit and determination has become part of the parlance of many educators. And this is a good thing. But there is hardly any reference to humor and happiness. Ever wonder why? Is there anything more specific and salutary to life than the capacity to laugh? Yet it remains conspicuously absent from school, as something to examine, talk about, and understand. Even more so is any mention of it in all discussions around educational reform. Lots about core curriculum, standards, test scores, and student outcomes but a complete void in any sensible conversation around the purpose of education around well-being and what might make people happy? i.e. being able to laugh.

Laughter and happiness are an objective dimension of human experience. And we all know as products of school, that skills and knowledge are not enough. As educators, we also have a fundamental role in shaping dispositions. In other words, if people are to flourish and be happy, they need to gain various dispositions or virtues that enable them to align all of this together into a coherent whole. Nel Noddings, one of the great educational thinkers of this time in a wonderful book entitled “Happiness and Education” poses the challenge to educators: “Happiness and education are, properly, intimately connected. Happiness should be an aim of education, and a good education should contribute significantly to personal and collective happiness.” Would it not stand to reason then, that a priority be placed upon laughter in school and the pursuit of happiness?

In thinking about my own life, it was from my father that I learned to laugh. How to laugh at myself, the world, and to never take disappointment or failure (my own and others) too seriously. It has served me well. Humor and laughter have consistently enabled me to make visceral connections with others, be it the taciturn man in the post office or the guarded and silent student in the back of the classroom. It is a highly effective form of diplomacy that can disarm and allow boundaries to be transcended.

When you think about it, there are so many layers and dimensions to humor, that can be entry points to cultural understanding. Have you ever considered finding out from your students what makes them laugh and how they define what is funny? Or what is a joke for the Japanese as opposed to the Spanish? Or if there such a thing as word play and puns in Latino culture? Or why some things are funny in one culture and seen as inappropriate in others?

Historically speaking, we have an extraordinary tradition of humor: Charley Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, W.C Fields, the Marx Brothers, Bob Hope, Woody Allan. There is an important connection with social critique and humor that runs from Aristophanes to Lenny Bruce. Haven’t some of our finest and most perceptive of social critics been those who have used the veil of humor to challenge and unsettle us out of the normal? Satire is one of the great traditions in American culture that includes Mark Twain, S. J. Perlman, Art Buckwald, and Russell Baker. Have we had more piercing and perceptive critiquing of America than from the mouths of Mort Sahl, Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, and George Carlin? The tradition of humor in our culture is as vital an art form as literature, poetry, music, dance or the visual arts. Yet they remain absent from the life of school and the formal curriculum.

How many of us can recall a math teacher who deployed humor as a tool for learning? I am not talking about using humor as a way to laugh at others. But as an anodyne for the challenges and tragedies of life, which can debilitate the desire to learn. Teachers who take themselves and their classes too seriously rob kids of one of human beings healthiest attributes: laughter.

How many schools have we seen where an unnatural pallor of silence and sternness permeates the halls? Instead of relegating humor for recess and the school yard, why not elevate it as something worthy of analysis and study. Try it. You might just find a dour classroom transformed into a site of unabashed happiness and a room full of engaged, smiling and present lives.

About David Penberg

David Penberg is an urban and international educational leader. He has held leadership roles in non-profits, community-based organizations, independent, international and charter schools, and in higher education. He has a deep grounding in progressive education, the cross-cultural experience and leadership development. Dr. Penberg has a Ph.D. in Curriculum and Instruction from the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. He was a fellow in the Carey Leadership Program at Bank Street College (1982-84) and Klingenstein Fellow for International School Heads at Teachers College, Columbia University (2008). He was the founding director of the nationally recognized Liberty Partnerships Program at Bank Street College. Since then, Penberg has held posts as Head of Studies and Head of School in international schools in Mexico City and Barcelona. He was most recently the Head of School at Innovate Manhattan Charter School in the lower east side and is an adjunct at Pace University’s Teaching Fellows program. He abides by Auden's dictum "We were put on earth to make things."
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