Humor as a Pedagogical Technique

Posted by Niky Morgan on May 21, 2018

Now that Flatiron School has grown to five campuses, we have many more instructors on the team. In addition to sharing general lecture tips, we frequently share ideas for domains and code examples to use. One domain that has been passed down through several generations of instructors appears in a set of first-week lectures. Over the course of a few lectures, we teach the students the basics of object-orientation and increasingly complex relationships. The domain is Twitter: a user has many tweets and a tweet belongs to a user. By the final lecture, we add in the concept of favoriting another user’s tweet. With a new favorite model joining a user and a tweet, we introduce a many-to-many relationship. A user can have many favorites, a tweet can be favorited many times, and a favorite joins one user to one tweet.

In these lectures we introduce users to a Twitter feed for a user named Coffee Dad. Coffee Dad’s Twitter feed reminds us all of the people in our lives who don’t quite ‘get’ Twitter. Most of his posts are about drinking coffee, and they contain grossly misused hashtags. But every so often there occurs a tweet of surprising sorrow or anger, as if Coffee Dad couldn’t maintain his mask of a simple coffee-lover any longer.

While comparing notes one day, one of the instructors mentioned instantiating a second user named Coffee Mom for the example. I immediately balked because I followed the practice of the instructor who trained me and create a second user named Tea Uncle. As I tried to assess why I found Coffee Mom so offensive, I thought about all the ways the Flatiron instructors incorporate humor into our lectures and why we strive to do so.

Engagement

Keeping students engaged is an obvious benefit of humor. We can lecture to students for up to four hours a day. Even within an hour-long lecture we can see students’ attention flag. Humor keeps students attentive and listening for the next joke. It also provides them with an opportunity to make noise and move (if only briefly) during an extended period of silence.

Creating Emphasis

The auditory medium doesn’t provide as many opportunities to chunk together or break apart material as the written medium does. (Think of headings, spacing, text formatting.) We try to add this into lectures by writing down an outline of the high-level points at the beginning of the lecture and then returning to that outline at the conclusion of each point. This provides a natural separation and gives the students a chance to close the door on one concept and prepare to open the door for the next concept.

There are also other ways to signal important concepts during lecture. Slowing the pace of speech, gesturing or even stepping away from the podium can all refocus attention on the point the lecturer is making. Humor is another way we create emphasis in lectures. It adds impact to a point that we otherwise might need to make multiple times. It also aids in memory retention. If they remember the joke or the weird metaphor, they will remember the idea behind it.

Repetition

As one of my fellow instructors once said, “What? I said it once, they don’t remember everything I say?” Students learn at different paces. Some students do understand certain material the first time around, but for others it can take a few repetitions for it to sink in. In comedy there is a ‘rule of threes’ which means that a set of three events or characters is more memorable to an audience. Threes are used everywhere from fairytales to slogans.

One comedic use of this is to create a list of two similar things followed by a third opposing idea. I like ice cream, long walks on the beach and destroying the human psyche. Heightening is another comedy tool that can go along with this. Frequently used in sketch comedy, heightening takes a premise and iteratively builds on it until it approaches absurdity. (This was my core issue with the aforementioned Coffee Mom. It took the Coffee Dad premise and repeated it without heightening the absurdity.)

While explaining the use of join models in a many-to-many relationship, we present students with several domain examples. I enjoy saving the rideshare service domain for last. (A passenger and a driver are joined by a ride.) I find this to be a great example because students easily recognize all the information that must be stored about each trip. To drive this point home, I extend the conceit and point out how this information doesn’t belong just to me (a passenger) or my driver. I say this information belongs to both of us, together, because we are in love and building a life with each other.

This joke is unexpected, but it reinforces the concept of two models sharing a connection (a ride or true love). Forever more the concept of a join model will be ingrained in my students as they remember their teacher who fancies that she is building a life with an Uber driver who probably doesn’t even know her name.

Building Trust

Humor enhances our student experience in and out of the classroom. Our students are adults who have left their jobs, entrusting their careers and a hefty amount of money to Flatiron. Their futures are literally in our hands and we take that seriously. This means we have to earn (and keep earning) their trust in the classroom.

One way to create trust is through a shared frame of reference. When lecturers pick a topic that the students relate to, they become more relatable to the students. The students start to realize that their instructor might come from a similar background and care about the same things that they do. By extension this means that the instructor understands their fears and will fight to prevent them from coming true. Familiarity breeds trust. Something similar occurs when a class of students laughs at the same joke: they start to recognize each other as peers instead of strangers and it bolsters the Flatiron community.

Release of Tension

In tandem with earning our students’ trust, we also have to keep them motivated throughout the course. They learn so much in 15 weeks that it is easy for them to get overwhelmed, lost or just plain stressed. Luckily the instructors have seen these patterns before and can support students through the ups and downs they are experiencing.

One of my favorite moments in the course happens midway through. After six weeks of Ruby (including building a full-blown Rails application), the students struggle with learning JavaScript in week 7. They start to doubt themselves because a week ago they felt like developers, but this week it is back to troubleshooting syntax errors. After a few days of this struggle, we show the students a video of Gary Bernhardt’s Wat talk. This video is all about the idiosyncrasies of Ruby and (moreso) JavaScript. This video reminds the students that they are developers. They understand all the inside jokes and can laugh at JavaScript which they feel has been laughing at them for the past week.

One theory of humor views it as a stabilizing mechanism to release psychological tension and nervous energy. This video unwinds students at one of the most tense parts of the course. It also builds student trust in an instructor who knows their pain, classmates who have a shared struggle and themselves because they are developers who get the big joke.

Real-World Applications

How do developers who aren’t educators use humor to their advantage? They can use humor when training junior developers. Any developer is bound to be intimidated at a new job. While training them, put them at ease with jokes or stories about mistakes you’ve made. Better yet, put some jokes in those long and very dry onboarding documents. Those docs certainly could use some help keeping readers engaged! How about putting in a fun meme?

Most developers have to present code publicly at some point, whether it is at a conference or a team meeting. The next time you do a code walk-through, put in a few jokes to relax the audience. They might be overwhelmed by the volume of material you are presenting, so give them time to digest it by showing a fun meme.

Humor even comes in handy when teaching oneself new frameworks. Make up a really crazy metaphor to teach yourself how state flows in React. Write a blog post encapsulating all the frustration you felt while learning so that you can share it with future coders who will experience the same pain. Or meme!1

1: The author of this post may not know what a meme is.