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Brain-Based Learning

Laughter, Learning, and Why Teens Are Such a Tough Crowd

Laughter, risk, and novelty stimulate the teenage brain. Make these elements work for you by incorporating the strategies and rhythms of stand-up comedy into your teaching.
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The teen brain is like a novelty-seeking missile, disengaged one moment, but capable of intense focus and attention when a task becomes rewarding. I believe it was the late Rodney Dangerfield who said, "The audience is like a dog and jokes are like biscuits." In over 20 years of speaking and performing stand-up comedy for students, I've learned that using humor, interactive demonstrations, and even awkward moments are the biscuits that help students sit up and want more.

In the limbic system of the brain, the most important structure for memory (hippocampus) is located near and connected to a structure that helps produce emotions (amygdala). This anatomical relationship ensures that emotionally charged experiences will be remembered better than neutral events. This is the neurological basis for bringing more emotions (hopefully positive ones) to the classroom. In today's world of decreased attention spans and distracting smartphones, students need all the help they can get to increase retention of the important information you're teaching them.

Engaging Teens With Humor

Here are some strategies for bringing humor, novelty, and engagement to classroom activities.  

1. A Laugh A Day: You don't have to be a stand-up comedian to bring one more laugh per day to your classroom. The key is starting with something that you think is funny, but that's still relevant to the lesson. It could be a quick one-line joke, a bad pun, a funny video from YouTube, or a short story. If it bombs, poke fun at yourself for the attempt and try something else the next time. The best part is that it will spur your brain to look for humor in everyday life, and you'll start feeling more creative.    

2. Use Improv to Spin Classroom Disruptions: Have you ever been in the middle of making an important point and then there's a loud noise and you've lost half the class? It's frustrating. Well, you can't stop the disruptions, but you can use improvisational comedy skills to get a laugh out of them. I love it when some weird noise or bell goes off during my program because it's a real moment that we've all just experienced. Comedy comes from relatable events. The next time this happens, try working a comment about the noise into your point and see if you get a laugh. Express your pain over the interruption, and the audience will relate. Over time, you'll train your mind (and the kids' minds) to be more in the moment, and the endorphins produced by a good laugh will make getting back on track feel less like work. 

3. Bring Students Up: Laurence Steinberg, a professor of psychology at Temple University, showed in a series of studies that teenagers take more risks when they're in the presence of their peers. When their brains were imaged during the risk-taking activities, they showed an increase in blood flow in the pleasure center, a collection of neurons that activates during rewarding activities. In his book Age of Opportunity, Steinberg writes that teens take risks because that's how they learn.

You have a unique opportunity in the classroom. If you use interactive demonstrations that allow students to briefly take over the class, you can leverage this built-in risk-taking mechanism designed to foster learning. These interactives don't have to be funny, but by nature they will create awkward moments, which can be hilarious.

In my assemblies, the goal is to never embarrass the students who volunteer, but rather to amplify what they're saying or doing. That technique of reflective listening, with some embellishment, can produce laughter. In many cases, I'll run into students years after they've seen my program. They've long forgotten my name and face, but once I describe the interactive part of my presentation to them, suddenly it all comes back. It really makes my day when they immediately recite the point I was trying to make. That is emotional learning at work!  

4. Take a Comedy Workshop: I love watching and performing stand-up comedy, but using it in front of teenagers is the highest level of difficulty for getting laughs. If they sense that a joke is coming, you're finished. In addition, their age limits their life experience, so not even the best mortgage joke will work on them. In my experience, teenagers respond well to brief anecdotes with jokes that they don't see coming embedded in the story. It also helps when the story is about things they can relate to, like attachment issues (e.g. parents, sibling rivalries) or pop culture. If you're interested, I highly recommend taking a comedy workshop (improv or stand-up) at a local comedy club. There are even courses online, but nothing beats performing for actual humans. Interacting with an audience will build your confidence for delivering a joke, and it can be a healthy outlet for you. 

It's Worth the Risk

If you choose to bring comedy into your classroom, you risk being vulnerable in front of your class. I believe it's a risk worth taking, because the payoff will last long after the laughs are gone. Break a leg! 

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Jen Davidson's picture
Jen Davidson
Lifelong Learner

Love this! Especially *why* it works, thanks for explaining it so compellingly.

I once used a stand-up routine to conquer lifelong glossophobia so I could teach a class of adult learners. Karaoke helped too. There's nothing like a real audience, and once you realize they WANT you to succeed, or fail just enough to be funny and hence succeed, the fear goes away.

Matt Bellace, PhD's picture
Matt Bellace, PhD
Speaker, Psychologist and Comedian

Thanks Jen! Given my unusual background, I thought the 'why' might interest readers. I'm curious to hear more about how you used stand-up to get over your fear of public speaking. Did you take a class? Memorize an existing set of material? Just got to open mics?

Whatever you did, I'm glad to hear it worked!

Jen Davidson's picture
Jen Davidson
Lifelong Learner

I started by writing down my jokes/ideas on index cards. Then I grouped similar concepts together. I figured out what order they should go in, and created segueways between them. Next I practiced it dozens of times, til I knew how things flowed, rather than memorizing the exact words, so if I slipped up, it was easy to recover because the concepts made sense in a certain order. Then I performed it for a friend, who is also a standup comedian, and got some notes.

I never did get around to actually performing my act in front of an audience of strangers, but I didn't need to: All those concepts I had practiced applied to how I needed to present my course so that people could easily follow, understand, and learn my content. Since people learn better when they are experiencing an emotion, throwing in a few jokes helps the class too.

After I presented for the first time, I received glowing feedback, and was asked to teach again to another group a few months later. By then, although I did still get a little nervous, I knew that *I am the expert on this material* and so I felt confident to just briefly practice a couple times before presenting again. I received more praise and positive feedback, which created a positive cycle for me, and broke the negative cycle of fear that had held me back for over 35 years!

I do still have a life-goal to do some open-mic comedy, and there's a place right up the street that hosts it every night at 7pm, so I just need to develop some fresher material and get back out there. Cheers!


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