Learning Jokes...

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Or, I should say, the role of jokes in learning. Although I’ve not been out doing comedy gigs in the last handful of months (for various reasons which I’ve shared with my comedy friends, but not blogged about here as they’re tangential at best to my musical life), the things I have learned in that world continue to resonate pleasingly with my core identity as musician and musical facilitator.

Now, I’ve always played for laughs in my teaching, especially with larger groups. And it’s actually much easier to crack jokes successfully in a teaching context than it is in a stand-up comedy context, because you know your audience much better. One thing that going out telling jokes to roomfuls of strangers teaches you is to appreciate it when you come across a room full of people about whom you know a lot in terms of background, interests and cultural referents, if only in the one dimension that brings them all together.

Conversely, the ease with which one can crack successful jokes with such a group makes you realise how much comedy is based on the in-joke - how laughing together at something we all share and recognise makes us feel good about ourselves and connected with each other. The call-back is essentially a device for creating in-jokes in rooms of strangers.

Now, there are some obvious reasons why you might want to crack jokes in a teaching situation, apart from the simple (and effective) ego-boost it gives you. It engages the audience, keeps them from getting bored, generates a positive emotional tone which will help them be receptive to learning.

Which are all good reasons, though they do give space to infer that if it weren’t for teachers jollying everyone along, learning would be boring, and that your subject doesn’t have enough inherent interest to hold anyone’s attention without added pizzazz. Which seems patronising to the learners and insulting to the teachers, and evokes a picture education in which learning is Serious and Hard Work and a sign of moral rectitude, like eating your greens - what one might term the Goveian Dystopia.

(And why is eating your greens seen as worthy but unpleasant? I love greens.)

I would like to argue, though, that jokes are not just a sugar-coating to the learning process, but are actually a really valuable and integral element to it. Because, if people laugh at jokes, that tells you that they Get It. And that’s what you want to happen in a learning scenario - you want people to understand what’s going on.

In a one-to-one or small group situation you can test for learning very easily in multiple different ways. You can be interactive about it, as well as watching people’s facial expressions and body language. But in larger groups, it gets much harder. You can still look at them (and I do frequently ask, ‘Are you frowning because you disagree with what I said or are you just thinking about it?’), but you get much less chance to actively check understanding.

But jokes are great for this. You get clear, immediate, audible feedback as to what proportion of the room are with you. No laughs says that they don’t get it, and you need to stay on this and help them understand.

Moreover, laughter tells you about deep learning. Much comedy is built round making connections between things in non-standard ways - the surprise, the sense of discovery is what creates the joke. And deep learning is all about making connections, not just remembering what you’re told. So jokes not only tell you whether people are comfortable enough with the material to connect it up with other ideas and experiences already internalised, they actively help people to integrate knowledge.

Indeed, a classic sign that people have partially grasped something, but are not yet fully au fait with it is that they look terribly worried when you crack a joke. They understand the material well enough to know when you’ve said something odd, but they’re not yet familiar enough with it to connect it up in a way that allows them to get it.

A conversation I’ve had reasonably often over the years goes like this:

Me: < spontaneous nonsensical quip about the subject at hand >
Roomful of Learners: < silence, rabbit-in-headlights look >
Me: It’s okay, that was a joke
R of L: < ripple of nervous laughter >
Me: Not a very funny one, obviously, but still...
R of L: < louder laughter, expressive of relief >

So, I would contend that comedy is not merely the chocolate coating around the brussells sprout of education, but is actually made out of the same nourishing and tasty stuff that is the subject at hand. A good generic learning outcome for any teaching situation would be:

On successful completion of this course/module/whatever unit you dole your education out in, the student will be understand the subject deeply enough to be able to enjoy subverting it.

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