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Humor in Mathematics Classroom Essay


To make the learning in classroom more fun, teachers do make a different strategies or techniques. Game and laughter is very important in learning, that’s why teachers that do have humor make their class more enjoyable and interesting. Anyone who has paid attention to great speakers would know that humor is an excellent method for eliciting sympathy from the audience and opening them up to your message. Every teacher also knows that a sense of humor is necessary to winning the hearts of students. How should this inform teaching? Should the teachers focus on creating an entertaining show for their students? Or would the teachers change their lessons into therapy sessions? This study presents a teaching approach that is built around math problems that are for the student at the same time Cheerful (entertaining, funny, cool) and Challenging (difficult). We call this CheCha mathematics.


The technique of using humor to enliven lectures is as ancient as the Babylonian Talmud. Rabbah (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbos 30b), a Talmudic sage who lived 1700 years ago, would say something humorous before starting to lecture to the scholars, and they would laugh; after that, he would begin his lecture. Rabbi Meir (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 38b), another Talmudic sage, was an expert in fox fables and would devote one-third of his lecture to parables. These sages recognized the value of humor in education, even in ethical and religious instruction. Most statistics textbooks do not use a humorous approach, with exceptions such as Runyon (1977) and Pyrczak (1998). Blumenfeld and Alpern (1985) discuss ten reasons to use humor in the classroom. These include such factors as opening communication and the humanizing effect of humor on image.

Berk (1996, 1998) claims that humor has the ability to decrease students’ anxiety, improve the ability to learn, and boost self-esteem. This, in turn, can encourage a more receptive learning atmosphere. One researcher found that having students watch an episode of Seinfeld helped calm them and reduced their heartbeats when they were later forced to do something stressful, give an impromptu speech about Bosnia, a subject they knew very little about, in front of a camera. The heart rates of students who had watched the humorous Seinfeld episode rose from an average of 70 to averages of 80 to 85 beats per minute while speaking; the heart rates of students who had not been inoculated with humor rose to a mean of 100 (Burkhart 1998). Lundberg and Thurston (1992) discuss various ways humor can be used in the classroom.


CheCha math method is based on three educational approaches: acknowledging the role of affect in math learning (Hannula, 2006), using humor in teaching (Grecu, 2008) and use of open-ended problems in math teaching (Pehkonen, 2004).

Affect in mathematical thinking and learning

In order to study affect in math education in contexts of actual classrooms there are three main elements to pay attention to: cognition, emotion, and motivation. Achievement without motivation is not sustainable, and neither is motivation without enjoyment. All three domains have a more rapidly changing state-aspect and more stable trait-aspect. (Hannula, 2006). One “fundamental principle of human behavior is that emotions energize and organize perception, thinking and action” (Izard, 1991). Research has confirmed a positive relationship between positive affect and achievement. It seems that the affective outcomes are most important during the first school years, as they are less likely to be altered later on. Two key elements of a desired affective disposition are self-confidence and motivation to learn (Hannula, 2006).

Advances in our understanding of the neuropsychological basis of affect (e.g. Damasio 1995, LeDoux, 1998) have radically changed the old view of the relationship between emotion and cognition. Emotions are no longer seen as peripheral to cognitive processes or as ‘noise’ to impede rationality. Emotions have been accepted as necessary for rational behavior. Moreover, research has also shown – although not yet fully understood – that certain emotions facilitate certain type of cognitive processing (Linnenbrink & Pintrich, 2004).

Focusing on motivation we may find ways to influence what the subjects want to do, not only how they try to achieve it. In the existing literature, psychological needs that are often emphasized in educational settings are autonomy, competence and social belonging (e.g. Boekaerts, 1999). These all can be met in a classroom that emphasizes exploration, understanding and communication instead of rules, routines and rote learning. However, this requires that all feel safe and perceive that they can contribute to the process. A possible approach to meet all these conditions would be the open approach, and more generally focusing on mathematical processes rather than products (Hannula, 2006).


Already Kant (1952) considered the nature of humor. He stated “Laughter is the result of expectation which suddenly ends in nothing” (p. 199). His classical statement has started considering humor as a mental mechanism resulting in laughter. As another early scientific approach to humor, Freud (1991) divided comic into wit, humor and actually comic. Many kinds of activity, including wit, are directed on reception of pleasure from intellectual processes. A person feels pleasure from suddenly released energy, which is splashed out in the form of laughter. From this perspective already, we can perceive how a good joke can generate a joyful atmosphere and create a positive emotional background of activity. The comic, humorous contents can be reached in various ways and techniques.

For example, Veatch (1998) suggests a list of types that are funny: finishing to the point of irrationality, satire, literal understanding of metaphors, irony, ambiguity, word-play, contradiction, discrepancy, excessive rationality and a deviation from the usual. Each of these types of the comic can be expressed as a joke or a problem in math context. As an example of a math contradiction we take a joke, here framed within the world of Winnie the Pooh: Pooh and Piglet sit on a small bench and talk. Eeyore has sent them a box. In the box there are ten sweets and a note. In the note Eeyore tells them to divide them: seven for Pooh and seven for Piglet. Piglet: “How is that? I do not understand. What do you think of it?” Pooh: “I do not even want to think. But I have already eaten my seven sweets”.

Humor can also act as means of a psychological discharge, and promote efficiency of pedagogical activity. Suhomlinsky (1975) wrote: I would name laughter as a back side of thinking. To develop ability to laugh in the child, to enhance his sense of humor – means to strengthen his intellectual forces, abilities, to teach him to think and to see the world wisely. Grecu (2008) has considered use of humor in teaching. She highlights seven basic functions of humor in pedagogical activity: 1) informatively-cognitive (Opens essential features and properties of subjects and the phenomena. Rejecting standard approaches, the humor bears in itself any discovery), 2) Emotional (the Humor can act as means of creation of creative state of health and as means of emotional support) 3) Motivational (The humor can serve as a stimulator of volitional processes) 4) Communicative (the Person with humor is attractive for people) 5) Developing (Humor promotes development of critical thinking, a sharpness of vision of the world, observation and consequently intellect)

6) Diagnostic (by the laughter maintenance – at what the person laughs, it is possible to judge about his merits and demerits) and 7) Regulative (the humor gives the chance to look at oneself from an unexpected angle, allowing self-evaluation). In CheCha method most of these are relevant, the most important functions being on top of the list. Grecu suggest the following techniques for designing of humor for educational tasks. These pedagogical techniques are paradox, finishing to the point of irrationality, comparison by the remote or casual attribute, return comparison, wit of absurd, pseudo-contrast or false opposition, a hint, a self-exposure of own faults, intentional ignoring of things that might cause laughter, and exaggeration of the certain features of behavior.

Grecu has offered also classification of means of the comic: 1) “word-play” based on violation of language norm (carrying of terminology over to a context unusual to it). Consider the following riddle: “I am it while I do not know that I am. But I am not it when I know that I am. What am I?” 2) Comparison, author’s original neologisms, – based on artistic expressive means (double entendre, an ambiguity). Examples are easy for finding in Carroll’s books (2006, s. 50): “Explain yourself!” “I can’t explain myself.” 3) Paradox, an example being the claim “I am lying now”. Also Dzemidok (1993) distinguishes several humoristic methods: modification and deformation of the phenomena, unexpected effects and amazing comparisons, disproportion in attitudes and communications between the phenomena, imaginary association of absolutely diverse phenomena, creation of the phenomena which deviate from logic.

As an example of the latter method consider the following: There were only 3 students attending a professor’s lecture in University. Suddenly 5 persons left the room. The professor said: “If 2 students enter this room, there is nobody attending.” Most types of humor and their techniques could be used at mathematics lessons. Thanks to entertaining tasks and comical contents of the problems the classroom climate promotes a positive interaction between the teacher and students. However, one must be aware that opportunities of humor as pedagogical means have their limits.

Grecu (2008) gives several suggestions regarding these limits. She suggests that one should use humor gently and support humor of students. She also warns not to ridicule student’s person, laugh at what the student is not able to correct or change or laugh at an involuntary mistake of the student. Rough joking would indicate lack of customs and disrespect of the student and hence is absolutely unacceptable for the teacher. Moreover, the teacher should avoid being the first to laugh at one’s own joke, as it can cause the reaction opposite to expected.

Problem solving and open-ended problems

Problems are said to be open, if their starting or goal situation is not exactly given and they usually have several correct answers (cf. Pehkonen 2008). Open-ended problems emphasize understanding and creativity (e.g. Nohda, 2000, Stacey 1995). This would not mean lowering the expectations, quite the contrary. If an open task allows the solver to gain deeper and deeper insights (a “chain of discovery”; Liljedahl, 2005) it can facilitate a state of sustained engagement. This would also lead to more intensive working.

Research has shown that problem solving can be engaging and enjoyable for many students, but it does not attract everyone. Schoenfeld (1985) defined an individual’s beliefs or “mathematical world view” as shaping how one engages in problem solving. For example, those who believe that math is no more than repetition of learned routines would be more likely to give up on a novel task than those who believe that inventing is an essential aspect of mathematics. Unfortunately, there are students who do not see the potential for engagement and enjoyment in a math problem. We see humor as a means to engage also those students who do not perceive math problems enjoyable to begin with.


The purpose of this study is to answer the following questions: 1. What mathematical problems are entertaining from the students’ point of view? 2. How CheCha method influences the atmosphere in mathematics lessons?

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