Is there room for comedy in the classroom? Should silliness support learning? I think so.
I’ve been leading a team to develop the performing arts as a teaching tool, to engage students on an emotional – rather than a cognitive – level, and so improve their learning. Whether through music, drama, poetry, dance, literature or comedy, the performing arts has a huge potential to enrich our teaching repertoire and produce truly memorable and transformative learning experiences for our students.
In our Comedy in the Classroom programme, lecturers create different characters which represent competing views or theories about sustainability. We perform a short piece of theatre where the characters interact with each other – literally bringing debates to life. We’ve won a University of East Anglian Teaching Excellence Awards for this work, and I’m now a University Teaching Fellow, dedicated to growing and deepening this work further afield. Our ideas are catching on.
Getting to grips with competing perspectives on society and the environment is particularly challenging for students with no social science background who are more used to dealing with ‘facts’ than ‘theories’. In response, we have developed the ‘theoretical theatre’, a semi-improvised performance/teaching method with wide applicability across the curriculum. Think ‘Horrible Histories’ sketches but for any subject you like.
The essence of it is to boil down an abstract concept into a character. For instance, ‘rational choice theory’ could be a white-coated scientist representing cold logic, weighing up costs and benefits, and promoting free market efficiency. In contrast, ‘social psychology’ is a real people person, keen to know what makes people tick, quite gossipy, keeping up with the latest trends and always on social media! While these two characters have some common interests (in understanding how individuals make decisions), they also disagree about some pretty fundamental stuff and sparks will fly when they get arguing about the merits of Boris Bikes in encouraging people to take up cycling.
The performances are inherently funny because, well, none of us are actors but we do get into the essence of the characters and have to deal with each other! For some of the performances, such as Theoretical Blind Date, we also ramp up the innuendo and get the students laughing and joining in too. For others the set-up is more ‘straight-laced’ with lecturers being themselves, but with a prop to represent a particular viewpoint.
Feedback has been hugely positive. Not only are these fun, enjoyable sessions and something completely different, but students report much greater understanding when they see ideas personified and acted out. An unexpected benefit has been that our students say how much they enjoy seeing us lecturers as more human, approachable and accessible, after one of these sessions, saying they feel more confident to talk to us once they’ve seen us jump off the academic pedestal.
In a follow-up survey, 89 per cent of first year students said the class was more memorable than a normal lecture or seminar, while 78 per cent said it was more effective at communicating complex ideas, and 87 per cent found the class more interesting and engaging than a normal lecture.
We have organised Performance Skills and Improvisation training to support those doing these activities, and we also enjoy getting props and costumes, title sequences and visual aids together to really create a sense of occasion – but there’s no denying that this does take a lot more time and effort than a ‘regular’ lecture.
However, in our minds, the benefits are enormous and we feel that comedy in the classroom should be taken much more seriously.
Gill Seyfang is a reader in sustainable consumption at the University of East Anglia. She is presenting at the Higher Education Academy's annual conference, which is taking place in Manchester from 4-6 July