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You're having a laugh! Learning as fun

Paul Armstrong
University of Leeds, UK

Paper presented at SCUTREA, 32nd Annual Conference, 2-4 July 2002, University of Stirling


Responding to H.G. Wells's statement about what it means to be 'fully adult', Yeaxlee, renowned for being one of the first to write about lifelong learning, asked 'When does a man (sic) become fully adult? When is his education complete?' and replied 'the only true answer is 'Never while he lives' (Yeaxlee, 1929, 164). In promoting lifelong learning at this time, Yeaxlee was aware of the competing attractions for the masses, those 'vast multitudes of folk' (155) for whom learning has no appeal:

Constant propaganda on behalf of adult education is desperately needed. If (we) appear to assume that the populace is clamouring for adult education, the writer is under no illusion in this respect. The cares of this world and the deceitfulness of even sufficient riches to spend on dog-racing, the pictures [cinema], jazz, and other popular movements choke the seed of cultural interests quickly enough. But human nature is not truly expressed or represented in these reactions to depressing conditions of life and work, or to sensational incitements to the mis-spending of leisure. (156)

Part of his answer to widening participation was to ensure that 'the work is not entrusted to dry-as-dust pedants or raw young academics, but to men and women in the prime of their powers' (154) - of which there is a dearth - whose challenge is to overcome 'the mischief that education is not presented to people with sufficient conviction, vividness, or humour' (156). His fears were that adult education would attract teachers for 'mercenary or (in the less worth sense) professional motives. Yeaxlee was arguing for whole time dedicated teachers of adults who can make learning fun for the masses through the 'enthusiasm of humanity', and though integrating learning 'with the common life of the community, with the diverse interests of the persons who make up that community' (158).

There is a lack of literature on the use of humour in adult learning or the process of making adult learning fun. Most certainly, learning and fun are assumed to go together as far as young children are concerned. But later education becomes a serious business. And, if anything, learning has become more serious over the past decade or so. In the UK, the mainstreaming of university adult education has reduced the amount of learning for its own sake, for enjoyment. A major concern within adult education is that students should not be attending classes to be entertained. In higher education, particularly since the removal of student grants and the introduction of loans, there is a sense in which students have become more serious about their studies, attending university as an investment for their future. Their position has shifted from being consumers of culture to customers of learning. Non-accredited courses in which students do not need to undertake assessed work have to be charged at a cost recovery rate as they do not attract public subsidies.

Then there is the impact on the workplace. The stresses and strains of working in further and higher education in Britain in the past decade has grown enormously. There are more and more meetings to attend, mountains of paperwork, and a large amount of accountability. Teachers are expected to train to national standards that demonstrate their competence.

Interestingly, the further education standards for teaching and learning developed by FENTO (1999) include a specification of personal attributes that good teachers need. But that detailed list does not include a sense of humour. Yet a survey commissioned by FENTO (2001) reports that one of the four themes identified by practitioners is a need 'to mix the more serious aspects of learning with fun and interest for the learners'. In my own experience, students seem to consistently value the use of humour in the classroom (Bryant et al. 1980). Yet it is rarely included in teacher training programmes or job descriptions.

We know little about the use of humour in adult learning. But what literature there is will be reviewed in this paper. A word of caution, though. Just because the focus is on humour does not mean that this paper is funny. At the 1999 SCUTREA conference, Malcolm and Zukas (1999) delivered a satirical paper on recent developments in university adult education in the United Kingdom. It was received with hardly a chuckle, which confirms the view that we have become much more serious in our work.

Review of humour in adult learning literature

A search through the literature on adult learning has generated little on the role of humour in the classroom. Apart from the images of adult education in The Simpsons (Harris and Jarvis, 1999), and novels set in adult, further and higher education of Leo Rosten, Tom Sharpe, and David Lodge and Malcolm Bradbury respectively, there is generally a lack of literature specifically addressing the place of humour in adult learning.

There are three aspects to consider: first, there are curriculum matters in which humour or comedy features in the provision; second, is the role of humour in teaching and learning; and, third, humour as the subject of research.


Humour as part of the curriculum would appear to play a minimal role. In the late 1980s, Preston (1989) undertook a survey of the teaching of literature in extra-mural provision in the UK. Out of 579 literature-related courses, only one was focused on comedy. At this time, there were 55 courses identified as 'creative writing'. O'Rourke and Croft (1994) discuss creative writing as a 'new' university subject, particularly in the context of cultural and women's studies, which extends the nature of literature. They say that English Literature itself is still a relatively new subject, and one that has failed to address, among other things, comedy.

Within higher education, comedy and humour are still very much a minority specialism as an area of teaching and research. The University of Kent has comedy expertise in the Drama Department, with a focus on stand-up comedy. A significant feature of the Kent programme is that it has both theoretical and practical aspects, involving performance as well as analysis. In the private training sector there are examples where training is informed by humour, such as those training films that utilise the comic skills of, say, John Cleese, and also presenters who have the same skills as stand up comedians. Whilst the place of humour in the workplace may not always be beneficial (Beels, 1997, Paton and Filby, 1996), the value of humour in human resource development has been recognised (Barsoux, 1996). Donald reports on an agency company that believes in making training fun. The agency regularly combines a 'serious training element with a good dose of play':

Last year, for example, the company went to the comedy club Jongleurs and all the staff, from directors to receptionists, learned how to present a stand-up comedy routine. (Donald, 2001: 35)

An interest in the genre of stand up comedy has been studied elsewhere; for example, Roberts (2000) has undertaken an analysis of the performances of Tim Allen (Home Improvement) as an art form. Strangely, then, both business and cultural studies provide a framework for the study and teaching of comedy and humour (Miller, 1999: 2000).

Teaching and learning

The stimulus for this paper is the fact that there appears to be much more known about the relationship between humour and learning as far as children's education is concerned than for adult learning. There seems to be a more substantial literature on this (Bergen, 1992). There is little evidence of such practice in adult, further and higher education. In the area of basic skills training, there has been some creative thinking in the development and delivery of materials (Baynham, 1996). In further education, there is a study of the use of humour in the teaching of physical activities (Spencer, 1997), and in higher education, Powell and Andresen (1985) have examined the relationship between humour and teaching. They see a cognitive process taking place when a new concept is introduced, illustrated by a humorous example, and followed by an explanation.

In terms of ideas on teaching and training to teach, Stock (1970) made reference to 'excellent' research on teaching styles and learning, in which student evaluations weighted more heavily teacher characteristics such as 'warmth, humour and responsiveness, concern' than those factors correlated with learning gain (factual and comprehension learning). This echoes an earlier textbook statement on The Art of Teaching in which the author argued that one of the most important qualities of good teaching is a sense of humour:

When a class and its teacher all laugh together ... they become a unit ... enjoying the shared experience. If that community can be prolonged or re-established, and applied to the job of thinking, the teacher will have succeeded. (Highet, 1951: 56-57)

Similarly, Conti and Fellenz's research on good and bad teaching of native American learners (1988) reveals an appreciation by learners of teachers who display ' a variety of warm, human feelings that are telegraphed to students by a smile ... a genuine smile', and 'good teachers make learning fun'. A paper by Jones (1999), reviewing abstracts submitted to arts and adult education conferences, uncovers one that focuses on the use of humour among health educators. Indeed, this is one area - medical and health training - where there appears to be a more substantial literature, including nurse training (Harries, 1995; Harrison, 1995).

Fleming's report (2000) on a project for older learners in Ireland likened the response of these older adults to images of nudity and sexuality in an art gallery as like 'giggly children', and makes links to the idea that lifelong learning improves well-being in which

laughter and humour play an important part in the group's experience. The power of humour to break through barriers of fear, anxiety and tension is well-recognised. It is part of well being. Their laughter is a way of defusing the discomfort, the anxiety of confronting images and artworks that may be embarrassing. It allows them to look at something they may not otherwise confront and makes it easier to return to it and look again. In the workshops, laughter releases creativity. (Fleming, 2000: 95)

Humour as a means of coping with embarrassment (Billig, 2001) came up in an earlier paper, in which Wellings (1977) was reporting on a programme of parent education in Sheffield, in which there was a degree of social embarrassment which was coped with by generating 'some relaxation producing humour'. In dealing with uncomfortable memories emerging from life histories of war veterans in the process of experiential learning, Thomson (1996) notes how 'awkward and painful memories .. resisted questions which cut across their safe ways of remembering', and that the participants would then describe these in 'humorous and comfortable terms' (192).

Taking a broader view, Brown (1997) in examining the establishment of an environment which would empower learners in the process of developing mathematical skills, found that the women students and tutors 'used humour ... to create a climate conducive to learning'.

These examples illustrate the role of humour in classroom settings, and in group interactions. In distance learning, and self directed study, the use of humour is also recognised as being important. In evaluating educational software developed for adult learners, Lewis and Murphy (1988) used 'humour/surprise' as one of the seven dimensions to be rated as part of the evaluation. Making software fun to use seems to be a significant concern of the developers. In examining the characteristics of self-directed learners, Danis (1988) refers to 'the development of personality traits such as humour, flexibility, patience, self control etc.' (122).


The University of Hertfordshire is currently hosting a research project to discover the world's funniest joke, using the internet. In what is described as the 'largest scientific study of humour', Richard Wiseman has set up the 'Laugh Lab' through which he is collecting jokes and putting them back out to be rated(1). Psychology has provided a framework for the analysis of humour, including Freudian psychoanalysis (Freud, 1960). We were reminded by den Have (1973) that there is a psychological basis to humour, as described by Allport (1961) as 'self-objectification': insight and humour; humour being 'the ability to laugh at the things one loves and still to love them' (283). Elsewhere, the study of humour is rooted in neurology, linguistics and philosophy (McCrone, 2000; Cohen, 1999).

Within research on adult learning, Stegman (1988) examined informal teaching and learning transactions between female health workers. The author notes that

between women there was less humour and more projected need to apologise ... Women participants, in analysing humour, saw different amounts, types, and reasons for humour in transactions between men and women and between themselves. In the former transactions, humour was seen as a form of flirtation, attraction, manipulation or expression of discomfort. (401)

Gender differences in humour are also highlighted in a conference paper delivered in Canmore. Cathro (1995) was seeking to explore the use of humour in adult education, asking 'is there something funny going on?' The paper focuses on the interaction between two first year university students of Cree and Saultreaux ancestry and the researcher. In researching the meanings that the two students constructed of their learning tasks, the three used humour to jointly construct narratives. A key feature of this construction was the sharing of common experiences. The researcher admits to being unaware of the significance of humour in the research process. She argues that 'humour has often been unrecorded, and perhaps silenced, within and by academic disciplines' (Cathro, 1995: 235). Cathro asked critical questions about the role of humour in academe (both learning and research), and concludes that humour that connects rather than separates has been devalued and silenced because of 'Western, Christian, middle-upper class and male views' of the inappropriateness of humour in serious study'. She wrote that

In particular, humour has been devalued and silenced because of the male view of superiority of control and the inappropriateness of losing control through using humour to share life experiences. (235)

She supports this view with examples of disparagement of humour, particularly among western philosophers. Interestingly, though, in seeking jokes about academics, it would appear that these are the very people that are ridiculed. There are several versions of a joke about the way logic is used among western philosophers for deduction, and ridiculed by non-academics.(2)

It is easy to assume that all forms of humour are the same, but of course they are not. A thesaurus of humour would draw our attention to a range of different types and forms of humour such as satire, irony, wit, comedy, farce, burlesque, spoof, lampoon, parody, mockery, caricature, hoax, prank, trick, joke, jest, quip, jape, gag, banter, repartee, badinage, fun, and so on. The forms and functions of humour that link to issues of power and authority also have cultural dimensions that raise contradictions that can only be understood in its cultural context.

Emergent issues: towards a research agenda

The point of this literature review is to identify what is already known about the significance of humour for adult learning. What we have seen is that there is some common-sense assumptions made about the need for teachers to have a sense of humour, and that learning can be made fun for adults. However, there are also likely to be gender differences (Sev'Er and Ungar, 1997). There seems to be a suggestion that an inevitable diversity is needed. Humour is rooted in culture, as reflected in the analysis of jokes. The Hertfordshire project might be able to tell us something about whether it is possible to find a global or universal joke. A cultural studies analysis of humour, on the other hand, would suggest that to extract humour from its cultural context, particular where language and meanings are important, is problematic. On the other hand, as early silent film-makers discovered, visual humour (slapstick comedy), not reliant on playing with words, would appear to have a more universal appeal. The diverse forms of humour need to be examined in more detail.

The links to learning may be no more than what makes communication effective. In the analysis of good teaching, effective communication skills have long been recognised as vital components, and the skills of, say, the stand up comic, may be precisely those that contribute to effective communication (providing teachers are competent comics). However, the wider perspective on humour and learning may generate other suggestions in terms of stimulating and sustaining interest and motivation, and enhancing meaning and understanding that bring more direct benefits to adult learning.

On the other hand, any research will also need to look critically at the role of humour. This paper began by setting this examination in the context of widening participation, which has been dogged by the contradictions of social inclusion and exclusion. The use of humour is likely to reflect the same contradictions. The idea of an in-joke may be good for bringing together groups of students and tutors, a sharing of meanings and development of a common purpose and identity. But equally, jokes can be exclusionary and discriminatory. Within cultural studies, of course, this would be the focus of research.


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1. The current leading joke can be found at

2. One version of this joke about a professor of logic can be reached at


This document was added to the Education-line database on 13 March 2003