What do you get when you cross a teacher with an elephant?… A teacher you can never forget!

(First in a continuing series) I love to laugh, especially those big ones where your belly shakes and your eyes tear up. There have been many studies verifying the therapeutic value of laughing in developing well-being and reducing stress. Laughter and humor are basic elements of the human condition, and it has motivated me to think about the role of such a powerful element in the classroom. I know that I use humor all the time in class because it helps me be a better teacher!

When we think about our favorite instructors and consider what made them so memorable to us – we might find that many of them were funny?  Teachers who use wit and humor in their classrooms are often seen as more interesting and authentic. Humor can even help to foster the student-teacher relationship, which in turn creates a positive and welcoming classroom environment. When meeting with a new group of students, a well-placed joke or quip can go a long way towards setting the tone for the rest of the term. The best thing about the use of humor in the classroom is that even if your joke bombs, it still accomplishes the goal of appearing light-hearted – as long as you can laugh at yourself. Self-deprecating humor can be effective in demonstrating that a faculty member is fun and approachable.

Certainly we all enjoy having fun, and my humor, even if bad, does usually increase the fun quotient. But beyond the fun factor, humor can be an effective way to engage students and activate learning. A recent NEA Survey included the following powerful role that humor provides them in the classroom:

  • Create a Comfortable Learning Environment   When teachers share a laugh or a smile with students, they help students feel more comfortable and open to learning. Using humor brings enthusiasm, positive feelings, and optimism to the classroom.“Because I know that a good laugh eases tension, increases creativity, … I will do almost anything to get the class rolling with laughter — voice inflections, exaggerated facial expressions and movements, hilarious personal stories (of which I have way too many), ridiculous examples…and I encourage my students to do the same.”  — Kaywin Cottle, Speech Communications teacher (NEA Facebook)
  • Lighten the mood and reduce the tension Even if you’re not naturally funny, you still can lighten things up a bit. “In Health class, we learned the cerebellum is responsible for balance and coordination. When I trip over their backpacks, I might make a joke that my cerebellum is taking a nap.” –Deirdre Sexton (NEA Facebook)
  • Engaging the student  Every teacher’s goal is to be effective in the classroom and help students learn. Educators want their students to be eager and engaged. Humor has the power to fuel that engagement.
  • Maximizes Learning Fire Up Their Brains…. During her research on learning and humor, educator-researcher Mary Kay Morrison looked at brain scans that showed high levels of activity in multiple areas of the brain when humor was used in conversation and instruction. “We’re finding humor actually lights up more of the brain than many other functions in a classroom,” says Morrison, author of Using Humor to Maximize Learning. “In other words, if you’re listening just auditorily in a classroom, one small part of the brain lights up, but humor maximizes learning and strengthens memories.”
  • Being at ease The key thing to remember is to do what’s comfortable for you. Not only will it make you more approachable, it will also help put students more at ease in your classroom.

 I use storytelling as a main part of my classroom delivery, a subject of a later blog posting, but the humor, no matter how corny serves a variety of positive functions beyond simply making people laugh. Humor builds group (as in class) cohesion. People respond more positively to each other when humor is present. It brings them together. Humor can facilitate cohesion by softening criticism. I work hard in class to stimulate discussion and interaction, helping students take the risk of expressing their point of view. It is much easier to do so when the mood is inviting and less threatening.

Research also establishes that humor helps individuals cope with stress. It relaxes them. But not all the functions of humor are positive. Humor used divisively or to disparage others weakens group cohesion. Humor has negative impacts when it is used as a means of control. For example, given the power dynamic in the classroom, it is highly inappropriate for instructors to target students by making fun of their ignorance or beliefs.

Not every instructor feels comfortable being funny and I would never suggest they add jokes to their lectures. But you can quote funny stories from other people or use materials that contain humor to accomplish similar advantages. And whatever else you say about humor, whether you agree with me or not, you have to admit that there is nothing like a hearty laugh!


“Old School” in the “New School”

I’ll admit it right up front … when it comes to teaching working adults in Higher Education, I am still “Old School” at the core. And however Higher Education changes, I believe we must maintain some “Old School” ideas in the mix!

It is pretty obvious that Higher Education is facing a tsunami of technology change as we attempt to deal with the growing challenges of skyrocketing costs, massive student loan write-offs, inability to match education to jobs and a general decline in the societal appreciation of knowledge for its own sake. (See my earlier post, “Is Education Redefining Itself?” elsewhere on this site). The debate is rising as the experts all weigh in on the various methods of utilizing technology, as well as the benefits and costs of the various alternatives. It seemed only natural for me to partake in a variety of these alternative methodologies to experience first hand the experience each one offers. The result? I am very impressed and excited about my experiences, but still find myself missing certain elements of the learning experience. It is not the content that I missed because my experiences were filled with interesting content, often rigorous. Rather it was the way I learned, the breadth and experiential nature of my learning, the camaraderie and collegiality of the classroom and the ultimate loneliness that kept creeping in my experiences.

I had previously begun my splurge into technology by taking a doctorate level management course at a major proprietary institution. In this course, email and focused newsgroups formed the technology core and the lectures, exercises and papers were in written format. There were Learning Teams, API Formatting and online Examinations that were machine graded. There were discussion questions and verbal interaction. It was nonsynchronous and very convenient.

I later tried one of the courses provided in iTunes, a political science course from a prominent school. It featured some spoken word lectures and video content as well as PowerPoints and slides. It was somewhat similar to the offerings on YouTube (yes, YouTube!!) that were based upon recorded lectures and some ancillary materials. They turned out to be pretty boring, although I have to take some of the responsibility for that.

And then the MOOCs – the Massive Open Online Courses that are the current rage. I took two courses through Coursera: (1)a course by the University of Edinburgh on Astrobiology and the Search for Life and (2)World History since 1760 from the University of Virginia. I found the academic content and rigor of these courses to be of very high quality, consistent with more typical undergraduate courses. The lectures were excellent – well planned and paced, consistently thoughtful and challenging and always attractive to watch. I found myself very much drawn to the presentations, whether viewed on my PC, laptop, iPad or iPhone. I viewed a few of the lectures multiple times to make sure I increased my retention. I’ll admit I did not do all the reading, but I did pass all the quizzes and participated in the discussion groups. The quizzes were a bit easier than I expected. The discussion groups were filled with discussion, but with an extreme mixture that ranged from inane to very insightful. It was very uneven and impersonal with no real basis for us to connect with each other. Of course there is no college credit, but I did earn a “certificate”.

As much as I enjoyed learning from all these different educational modalities, I missed some of the basic qualities that make “Old School” so effective in its own way. Primarily I missed the eye to eye contact with a real person, the opportunity to ask questions in the middle of a lecture to better understand a point. I missed the body language, the extemporaneous humor of the lecturer, the impromptu introduction of personal anecdotes and examples that seemed unrehearsed and “real”. And what we give up from the teacher’s point of view. There is no one to utilize “Classroom Assessment Techniques”, where the teacher can use cues such as eye contact, alertness, questions and facial expressions to make the alterations that enable the instructor to more effectively deliver the material. The classroom exercises would have been more natural and extemporaneous, and often more fun. In the absence of the teacher’s assessment skills there is a “sameness” and middle of the road presentation that falls short of the live presentation.

There are more Old School qualities that we also need to incorporate: the creation of a collegial and professional atmosphere for learning, outlets for informal and even social interactions to understand the human behavior characteristics that are often part of any solution. Heated arguments, earnest discussions, even a song or laughter are conducive to better learning.

One example that I believe has demonstrated some hope of retaining some “Old School” qualities is the FlexNet modality at the University of Phoenix. It is a modality where the first and last weeks of class are in the physical classroom led by a teacher, with all the related advantages. The middle of the course is offered in an online modality, using the Web and email to communicate. By adding some elements from the MOOC the combination may be quite powerful. To be sure, the online portion of such a course offers the great advantages of all online courses: time flexibility, proximity, and sometimes cost.  Online simply can’t be beat for its flexibility in time commitment from students, and or the fact you can be anywhere that has an Internet connection to do the work. Students” concern for their schedule often is the dominate decision factor. But we are not reaching the full potential if we cannot integrate personal contact with a teacher and fellow students, a connection that helps enhance the meaningfulness and transformational nature of education, not just the knowledge base. Let’s hear it for “Old School!”

Roots and Wings

Roots and Wings. It was almost 40 years ago when I first noted these words on a small sign in a gift shop in Memphis. The sign was one of those inspirational messages that tugs at your emotions, but this one struck particularly hard as my wife and I contemplated becoming parents for the first time. The advice it offered was simple, but effective: “There are two things you give your children, the first is roots, the other is wings.” That sign became our first baby purchase and still resides on the bookshelf beside our bed. It became a recurring reminder of how we approach parenting and child rearing, and served us well.


This morning I was struggling to overcome the loss of an hour’s sleep for Daylight Savings Time when I noticed the trusty little sign still sitting on the shelf, broadcasting its message across the bedroom. And it occurred to me that these simple words communicated the essence of why I teach and what motivates me to reach out to my students and to do my best to help them understand how to achieve success. I lead and I support them as they work to build a new life. And whether I am teaching Corporate Finance or Business Law or College Algebra, my task is the same- roots and wings!

Now I admit that the “roots” part is easier and certainly more evident. In my mind, the concept of roots includes nourishment and support as well as stability and staying power. Solid roots imply that the tools are there to weather the storms. After all, the curriculum, the syllabus, the text and my lectures are all directed to one end- the students’ mastery of the basic fundamentals of the course. I will use lectures, exercises, discussion, role-playing, media presentations and even guest speakers to reinforce the material. I want them to master the content, to wrap themselves around the central concepts and ideas they are grappling. I want them to think critically, to grasp subtleties and nuances, to master the content and its application to the world in which it resides. While doing so I want them to develop skills of communication, collaboration, leadership and intuition. My goal is to expand their minds, to broaden their perspective, to improve their skills, to deepen their knowledge. These are the intellectual “roots” that will provide the foundation, and more importantly, the confidence, to succeed in life. It will also be critically important in helping them deal with the “storms” of life.

It is when I contemplate the “wings” of the saying that I feel much more challenged as a teacher. The advantage of having wings is that one is no longer bound to the limits of the ground. There is suddenly a new way to look at the world, a different perspective on the existing nature of one’s life. Your view is much broader and much longer; it encompasses a greater diversity of thought and action and more ways of responding to the routine challenges of life.

The “roots” are really from the mind, the intellect, and the knowledge base of the student. But when I engage the student in going beyond the expected, in learning about themselves and their dreams, their values and their wishes, their heartaches and their joys, it is much more of a challenge. It is a challenge for me first because it necessitates that I have been able to accomplish the same thing myself. Do I know myself, really know myself? Have I lost touch of my dreams, my passions, my values? Do I understand what my students are feeling when I encourage them to put aside their fears and embrace their own dreams?

Secondly, my challenge is to encourage and motivate my students in “affairs of the heart”. This means that the second part of my challenge will rely on my “Emotional Intelligence” (to use a current management concept) to go beyond the subject matter of the course and touch the student’s emotions and feelings and their relationship to their own lives and future. It is here that I feel less prepared but where I see the greatest need. How can I get my students to consider “what can be” rather than “what is”? My success in every class includes my ability to do so.

A favorite tool of mine in this regard is the telling of stories – my story as well as that of their peers and even their faculty. To some it may seem to be a fairy tale, but most universities are filled with the stories of students who reached out in new direction to follow their own dreams. Another tool is the linkage between knowledge and careers – not the trade school mentality that is running rampant today but the value of written and verbal communication, of exploring the broader questions of mankind through the liberal arts, of the power of quantitative reasoning and scientific problem solving. A third tool is to freely express my passion for lifelong learning, of the permanent journey for self-improvement as well as self knowledge. My passion and commitment can demonstrate the overused “joy of learning”. I can demonstrate this important best by living it.

In some respects I know I am asking a great deal of myself and my students. Especially in working with students with difficult histories and current hardships, it is a significant leap for them to fully embrace the concepts of “roots and wings”. So I know it is a process, a journey that will take time and nourishment. But it is often evident to me that some of my students are having those “aha” moments, those insights into the intellectual demands of the course as well as the impact on their career and also their dreams and aspirations. So it is a question of steps, but the well-being of seeing progress is one of the great rewards I receive for teaching. So I keep on hauling out the fertilizer and water cans, but directing my students to the top branches and courage of flight.