The role of laughter in teaching and learning science

By Suzanne Perin - October 2011


Roth, W.-M., Ritchie, S. M., Hudson, P., & Mergard, V. (2011). A study of laughter in science lessons. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 48(5), 437–458.

The authors of this study argue that it is a mistake to ignore non-serious talk, jokes, and other aspects of speaking that may be considered “off-topic” and therefore irrelevant to science learning. On the contrary, laughter plays an important role in mediating classroom (and laboratory and shop) processes and the learning that emerges.

The talk and laughter processes in one seventh-grade Australian classroom were studied using the ethnographic method of conversation analysis, with examples taken from several days of lessons taught previously. The authors found three fundamental characteristics and functions in science learning (p. 454): first, laughter is interactive, and because it is dependent on the people involved, it arises from the situation and has a non-repeatable element; second, laughter plays a role in both challenging and reaffirming the relationship between knowledge and power and who holds that power; and third, laughter creates intimacy, complicity, and solidarity as a part of the learning environment that fosters engagement and interest.

As one example of the several interactions the authors analyze in the paper, the teacher asks her class to describe “what is engineering” and “who are engineers.” One of the students replies by saying the teacher’s husband’s name – because the class knows he is an engineer. The teacher smiles but gives little acknowledgment of the comment and continues on, asking “what type of people” are engineers. Another student gives a serious answer to which the teacher provides a positive evaluative response – but the first student continues by saying “incredibly good looking.” The teacher grins and laughs. The authors found that in this moment, the student’s funny answer is both technically correct (the husband is an engineer, and the student is complimenting him) yet, unanticipated and inappropriate for the classroom (bringing the teacher’s personal life into the dialog) – which upends the serious tone of the science lesson.

The authors conclude that separating everyday and “scientific talk” does not reflect the reality of professional laboratory situations and in classrooms, it serves an important learning function by both reasserting and overturning the seriousness with which science is usually associated. Laughter is integral to learning and understanding and should not be dismissed as irrelevant.