Five Ways Humor Boosts Creative Thinking and Problem-Solving in the Classroom

When we think about creativity and innovation, the words “humor” and “goofiness” don’t typically come to mind. But I’d argue that this is a critical piece of what it means to cultivate a climate of creativity. 

goof off, silly, laugh, teachers, John Spencer, education

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Don’t Wait to Smile

One of the worst pieces of advice I hear people give new teachers is to “not smile until Christmas.” There’s this fear that smiling, goofing off, having fun, or cracking a joke will send a message to students that the teacher isn’t serious about learning. Students will act crazy. Chaos will ensue. Desks will fly. Trash cans will burn. You get the idea.

But I found the opposite to be true. Humor, goofiness, joy, fun — these were actually vital to developing a creative classroom culture. When I taught middle school, we had a wordplay wall at the back with ridiculously bad dad jokes (things like “fire drill” and “slow jams” and “graduated cylinder”). We had Easter Eggs hidden throughout the classroom. We had our own version of a Rick Roll. If someone asked you to “share a link,” you had to “Cher a link” instead, sending them to a music video from Cher.

Here’s a description of it:

At first, I thought of this as comic relief. This was the icing on the cake. I secretly wondered if I was getting away with something. But eventually, I ran into Dean Shareski, who shared an earth-shattering perspective. Maybe joy wasn’t meant to be a reward. Maybe it wasn’t supposed to be a means to an end, but rather an end in itself.

Check out his TEDx Talk on the subject:

But I think there’s another hidden benefit. I’ve come to believe that joy, humor, and overall goofiness are actually vital for creativity. They are the playful elements that lead to better creative thinking.

#1: Humor encourages creative risk-taking.

There is a very real vulnerability to humor, because, whether we want to admit it or not, we are trying to be humorous . . . or at least witty. For example, when I wrote the following on the board, I had no idea if students would think this was stupid:

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And the truth is, many of my students did find it stupid. They rolled their eyes. They said things like, “You’re just like my dad.”

But something else happened.

It gave students permission to be goofy and nerdy and whimsical. And, in the process, it gave people permission to have their own unique creative voice. This quirkiness infused the entire classroom culture. Students internalized an unspoken message that it’s okay to be different. In fact, that’s precisely what makes them awesome.

#2: Humor develops divergent thinking.

My oldest son has started listening to Jim Gaffigan albums on his Spotify account. He loves it because Jim Gaffigan challenges our cultural perspectives and points out life’s little ironies in a way that is fun and playful. This is why we call Valentine’s candy “gamble chocolate” and muffins “bald cupcakes.” But the more he gets into these comedy albums, the more likely he is to point out the strange little ironies of life. It isn’t dark or sardonic, either. It’s just the strange little “I wonder why” questions.

But the truth is, most humor is a chance to see things from a new perspective. Prop humor is essentially a divergent thinking exercise in using an item the wrong way. A pun is essentially a chance to use language incorrectly in order to get a laugh. Now, some people hate puns. I get that. I hate fart jokes and pretty much all physical humor. But all of these strands of humor have a common notion of seeing from a different angle. In other words, they utilize divergent thinking.

Divergent thinking is a spontaneous, free-flowing, non-linear thinking process. When you’re thinking divergently, you’re looking at things from new perspectives. You’re finding new uses for common ideas and objects. You’re rewriting the rules and questioning everything. Here’s an example of a divergent thinking exercise:

Divergent thinking is critical for creative thinking; especially in the ideation stage of design thinking.

#3: Humor models curiosity and playfulness

When teachers use humor (especially observational humor), they are modeling a certain kind of curiosity and a willingness to look at life from a different angle. While this might not seem like an inherently creative act, curiosity is often the starting point for creativity. At some point, you move from questioning and exploring into making.

When teachers share humorous observations, they’re actually modeling curiosity. Over time, this becomes a part of the classroom culture.

I noticed this back when I worked with a creative, witty teacher named Allison. Her quick wit (which was never sarcastic) and her humorous observations became a part of the classroom culture. I’d argue that this wittiness was a key element to why she had such a creative classroom. It was a relaxed, non-threatening way to question everything. In a way, it was like the comic relief that allows an epic story to be even more epic.

This curiosity looks a little different with younger grades. At that age, it’s more of a playfulness and a sense that you’re not going to take yourself too seriously. It might mean dressing up funny or talking in a silly voice. And, in this moment, it might not seem like a big deal. But, actually, teachers are modeling a playfulness in this humor that is closely related wonder and curiosity.

#4: Humor boosts creative problem-solving.

A few years ago, I had the chance to hang out with Zac Chase. For what it’s worth, Zac is one of the smartest guys I know. He can quickly move from topic to topic, making connections between ideas, asking deep questions, and ultimately solving problems. When I asked him where he developed the ability to think that way, he answered simply, “improv.”

For the next few minutes, Zac described the connection between improvisational humor and things like empathy, problem-solving, and divergent thinking. I had always seen improv as something goofy — fun and funny, yes, but not all that cognitively demanding. But as Zac described the improv process, I realized that he was onto something.

There’s an article in Psychology Today that explores the connection between humor in ideation and creativity. One line stuck out to me:

There’s a reason for this: Laughter can help people solve problems that demand creative solutions, by making it easier to think more broadly and associate ideas/relationships more freely.

The science behind this is fascinating. Karuna Subramaniam ran a research study at Northwestern University where people watched various genres of videos. She then had participants engage in problem-solving tasks, word associations (convergent thinking), and brainstorming (divergent thinking) afterward. She found that those who watched comedy videos scored better in every area of creative problem-solving than those who watched horror or a lecture on quantum electronics.

Humor creates a lightened mood and a mental spaciousness that makes it easier to engage in connective thinking. It reminds me of the research around going for long walks, taking naps, or exercising. There’s something about that sense of space that leads to flexible thinking.

In another study, researcher Barry Kudrowitz demonstrated that improvisational humor increases ideation because of the transferable skill of relating to seemingly unrelated ideas. In other words, Zac’s use of improv is a part of why he’s able to think divergently and solve complex problems in unusual ways.

#5: Creative humor leads to creative fluency

Creativity doesn’t have to be functional and utilitarian. It doesn’t have to be big and bold and life-changing. It can be kind of silly and small and goofy. And when that happens, students are reminded that creative work doesn’t always have to lead to a greater end. It can be an end in itself. When kids make robots or do cardboard challenges or engage in creative writing, they can do those things for the simple reason that there is joy in doing creative work.

Interestingly enough, those goofy things become the very creative acts that lead to bigger and better things.

There’s a great quote from Clay Shirky that describes this evolution:

The stupidest creative act is still a creative act and that the real gap isn’t’ between the mediocre and great work, the real gap is between getting started and doing nothing. If you’ve created something, even if it’s stupid, you’ve put yourself in a position to do more . . . I’ve seen the evolution in my own work go from posting nonsense to really important work.

I love this idea that if we choose to be creative in the small things — if we embrace the goofy and silly and ridiculous and humorous — we have embraced that mindset that allows us to be creative in the big things. I’d argue that this actually leads to creative fluency.

John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something each day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.

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