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Why it’s good to laugh whilst learning

Blog posts | 16.08.2022

Krista Woodley

Learning Consultant and Learning Design Practice Lead at Kineo UK

The phrase ‘bring your whole self to work’ has perhaps been over-used over the past few years across management meetings, networking events and even LinkedIn. The phrase may be a tired one, but the notion is still quite fresh and perfectly challenges the familiar stereotype of us needing to have a certain professional ‘persona’ at work. In fact - the ‘whole self’ that we so often leave behind in our homes is the part of us that makes us unique and remarkable. And, the part of us that could perhaps make us a better professional and a better learner.

Have you ever thought that by being more playful, open and non-judgmental our teams could do better and achieve more than we ever expected?  

As we grow up and get to the serious business of work, there’s sometimes a sense that fun and play get put aside at work – brought out occasionally for a social or a cheeky coffee in between meetings. Do we need such a distinct separation between work and play though? I love my colleagues and I love hanging out with them (they do a mean disco bingo!) but are these small moments of non-work-related joy enough? 

All of which goes to state the obvious fact that, now more than ever, we need lightness, playfulness, good humor, kindness and empathy in all areas of our lives. And where better for us to fix our hollow-eyed stare than the world of digital learning design? Bring on the fun! 

A serious matter 

The authors of the book Humour, Seriously: Why Humour is a Superpower at Work and in Life are coming to our rescue with the important message that “humour makes us more competent and confident, strengthens relationships and boosts resilience during difficult times”. 

The book is written in a tone of levity peppered with plenty of cheesy jokes – which is one of the first important points that the book makes. It is levity rather than full out comedy which has the power to make the difference to us. This means that I don’t need to tell a string of hilarious jokes to generate the benefits of humor. However, it is enough to be open to a smile, a laugh, a funny comment, a groan-inducing pun, just seeing the funny side of something – either to offer those things myself or to be open to them in others. The book says:

“Levity is a mindset – an inherent state of receptiveness to (and active seeking of) joy.” 

This levity is the superpower of the book’s title and has powerful implications for business and learning. In short, humor, or levity, has the power to help us: 

  • Focus and engage in the moment 
  • Remember information longer-term 
  • Feel psychologically safe 
  • In turn, be more creative and innovative 
  • Be emotionally resilient and avoid burnout 

With all those benefits available to us, why be heavy if we can be light?

Play-based learning 

The concept of play-based learning is not new. Piaget (1936-1980) helped to develop the view that play is crucial to children’s cognitive development, although that view did not extend to adult learning. However, there is plenty of research now to show the benefits of play – both physical and intellectual play – on adult brains. 

The authors of Humour, Seriously cite a study published in the Journal of Experimental Education which showed that students who were taught class material with humor retained more of the class learnings, scoring 11 per cent higher on their final exams. They explain that: 

“by flooding our reward center with the neurotransmitter dopamine, humour engenders deeper levels of focus and long term retention. In other words, using humour makes your content more engaging in the moment and more memorable after the fact.” 

So, learning content with a sense of playfulness and levity will help learners be more focused on the information at the time of consumption and then better able to remember it later on. So what does this mean for how we approach learning design? 

Using empathy and joy in learner-centered design 

The empathy and connection required to successfully create a sense of lightness or playfulness overlaps with the empathy that lies at the core of learner-centered design. The questions are limitless - what does my learner want? What do they need? Where are they? What’s stopping them doing what they need to do? What do they find interesting or funny? 

Maybe the most profound question we can ask is - how can we best express that empathy and explicitly show that connection between originator (the designer and the organization) and learner – and draw back the veil and speak human-to-human? 

Interestingly, product design distinguishes between user-centered and human-centered design, specifically in relation to the question of empathy. The University of Kent State says: 

“User-centric design could be taken as a less emotionally empathetic approach, focused primarily on the tangible, physiological ways users interact with a platform, whereas human-centric design incorporates their emotional or psychological preferences as well.” 

Perhaps a human-centered learning approach which incorporates emotional and psychological preferences is the way forward?

Why it matters now 

As we all know, the last few years have been hard for most people in one way or another. Changes to learners’ worlds at home and at work, and the blurring of the two, mean that we spend more time than ever on video calls or dropping colleagues emails when we once would have dropped by their desk to say “hi”. Consequently, we need to make more effort than ever towards human connection and to maintain and nurture our positive working culture. 

We have seen that post-pandemic many organizations have retained flexible homeworking policies, enabling a far larger proportion of the workforce to be working from home where they weren’t two years ago. This demands an extra effort from individuals and organizations to create more human warmth in how we speak to and deal with one another. Equally, as more learning and communications move to asynchronous digital channels they also need to bridge that missing human-to-human gap, by making it as warm, light and personable as possible.   

How we can incorporate this into digital learning design 

This is all nice and cozy in theory. But what does this mean in practice? There are plenty of opportunities to introduce humor in learning content: funny words, pictures, animations, sound effects and music, themes and metaphors. Here are a couple of recent examples I’ve seen: 

  • A short piece of learning which used the clever and engaging visual analogy of a litter of puppies to explain nuclear physics. 
  • A couple of financial regulation animations, each of which had a noticeably jaunty music soundtrack which lightened the mood, but didn’t detract from the message. 
  • A stylized toy-like avatar that the learner can choose to represent themselves in the learning      

There may be subjects in your organization which are not appropriate to approach with levity, but if you understand your learners then you’ll be able to see which subjects are suitable and how it can work. As well as humor, strategies around inclusion, accessibility, flexibility and personalization all create a sense of empathy and connection. These are all good foundations for introducing humor and levity. 

And what if we step beyond the content itself? Obviously, there are opportunities to design whole learning and communications campaigns around playful ideas. For example, you could introduce a light copy tone through fun interactions and competitions on your platform or LXP. Make the most of social learning functionality, a space where people can share ideas and knowledge. If the right kind of tone is set, pretty soon people will also be sharing their own jokes and funny gifs and the tone will be lifted and content will become more entertaining and therefore memorable. 

What’s next? 

So when the future of work is automated and the crucial skills that humans can offer are those of mental flexibility, creativity, critical thinking and innovation, humor is both an output of those skills and a food for them. And when there’s so much to be gained, there’s always room for more humor, more levity and more connection. 

What’s the best example of playfulness, humor and fun in learning you’ve seen? Get in touch to let us know, or to find out how we can help you bring more levity into your own learning. 

Further reading 

Humour, Seriously: Why Humour is a Superpower at Work and in Life by Aaker and Bagdonas, Penguin, 2020. 

How to Be Funny at Work by Jennifer Aaker and Naomi Bagdonas, Harvard Business Review, 2021 

Why Work Should Be Fun by Bob Nelson, Harvard Business Review, 2021   

Krista Woodley

Learning Consultant and Learning Design Practice Lead at Kineo UK

With over 20 years’ experience of creating impactful digital learning, Krista leads and supports the Kineo EMEA learning design team. She provides consultancy and solutions for a range of clients, including Credit Suisse, Lego and Expedia.