Laughter is something that seems to come easily to children, perhaps even more easily than adults. Uninhibited guffaws, lively snickers, and broad smiles are audible and visible on a regular basis when one works in a school. All these usually are responses to funny situations, antics, jokes, pranks and are often at the expense of the teachers. Humour is certainly in the air!
One would then wonder whether this ability to laugh at others and at times even at oneself has a role in education. Can it be used as a pedagogical method? It may not be feasible or even advisable to convert it into a method or a formula, but it will be interesting to explore its use in education; in how a teacher could invest in this process and encourage children to use humour as well.
In a classroom context, when there is an occasion for laughter, it can lighten the mood and perhaps even help in the transfer of knowledge. The challenge here though is how the lightness can be maintained without losing out on the rigour of the content or process. How does a teacher allow for a sense of lightness aided by humour without the classes becoming a joke, so to say? I suspect this depends on how often humour is used and when. Children can get carried away with humour and so it is important for the teacher to be able to bring the class back to the topic being taught after the humorous interlude.
How does this tool help apart from lightening the mood of the class? For one, it can communicate that the teacher is not holding on to himself so seriously or the subject so tightly and is able to thus present a sense of being relaxed. This can help students who are not so confident about themselves or about the subject being taught, to venture out of their self-conscious cocoons and perhaps even contribute to the class through questions and comments. It can also influence the students to not hold themselves and their knowledge too tightly, thus paving the way for more confident and comfortable expression.
Children using humour to make sense of and even navigate an increasingly complex world as they grow up can be a useful skill. Skill, do I say? Does this mean that a sense of humour can be taught? I guess not, but what can be attempted is to help children see the humour in life, in situations, in people and in themselves as well. Life does pose its set of challenges in day to day living and can seem a little burdensome. A pair of laughter tinted spectacles can help alleviate some of this burden, which to a large extent has its origins in our minds.
How can we as teachers help students laugh at situations and people without being mean, pulling people down, or being overly critical? What does it mean to make fun of someone with the fun not just being enjoyed by the one who is the initiator of the teasing? How can a child make fun of someone and yet not cause hurt?
This would seem possible if there is a sense of affection underlying the teasing. What would also help is that the teasing is as far as possible limited to things like personal habits, quirks of the person being teased. Areas like family members, lack of capabilities, disabilities, and hurtful incidents – both emotional and physical are best avoided. As teachers we can persuade children to keep these in mind while they make fun of others and at the same time encourage a sense of playfulness. Such harmless teasing will encourage a sense of camaraderie as well as chip away playfully at the ego of the one being teased.
This of course is easier said than done as one is not sure what will cause hurt and how residues of such hurts will accumulate. One way in which this could be dealt with apart from encouraging a sense of affection is also a sense of openness. By this I mean that there needs to be a spirit of openness, where if hurt is felt while being teased, the person being teased should be comfortable to say this openly to the one teasing her/him. In this case, the onus is also on the person teasing to acknowledge the feedback and even offer an apology.
This holds when teasing people one knows and is in contact with regularly. Equal care should be taken about people one doesn’t know personally. It’s always easier to tease or make fun of people removed from us physically. Here, it would seem that humour that arises from a sense of playfulness and not anger, hate, irritation, or envy would leave the least amount of residue on the mind. Similar is the case with places or situations one doesn’t come in contact with regularly. A healthy dose of playfulness peppered with some irreverence will go a long way in lightening up situations. Irreverence usually comes easily to children, especially teenagers, towards figures or places that give out a whiff of authority. Irreverence with playfulness can neutralize the sense of intimidation a child can feel towards people, places, and institutions of authority, thus instilling a confidence to question, which can be a good trait, if nurtured well. However, irreverence that is not thus tempered can prove to be a double edged sword, presenting a picture of arrogance.
Making fun of others or participating in such acts seems a cake walk when compared to making fun of oneself. The human instinct for self-protection goes beyond just the preservation of the biological being. Years of conditioning gives rise to a sense of self or ego which is sensitive to attacks, perceived or otherwise, of the emotional and psychological kind. We as human beings display a fragile sense of self and will go to any extent to protect this entity that we have nurtured over the years. Given this, how are we expected to make fun of ourselves? How would we encourage children to develop this sense of self deprecatory humour? More so, what would it achieve? It comes back to the idea of holding oneself lightly or not taking oneself seriously. A tricky act, especially for a child who is growing up in a world where her/his sense of self is being reinforced at every juncture. All the same it is worth encouraging a healthy sense of irreverence towards oneself as well. This needs to be done without falling into the trap of self-pity or lack of self-worth, which again are indulgences of the ego.
The sense of lightness that comes from unburdening the ego will surely help a child (and an adult) to be more expressive and less cautious in a constructive way. They would worry less about hurting their ego or ‘exposing’ themselves to criticism or personal attacks. This surely is a project worth investing in and injecting laughter into!
The author is a teacher at Centre for Learning, Bangalore. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.