Sarcasm in the classroom

Posted on 22nd January 2018

In an article for TES, Bedales Head of Sciences Emily Seeber proposes that, contrary to popular opinion, there is a place for sarcasm in the classroom – just so long as it is used constructively, and within trusting relationships between teacher and students.

Teachers are told never to use sarcasm in classrooms, and yet research suggests that its use can boost students’ creative thinking. “I don’t agree with all this sarcasm-bashing”, says Emily. Rather, she says, there is evidence that, under the right circumstances, teachers should be actively using sarcasm to boost students’ creativity and abstract thinking.

In a major study, Li Huang and her team at Insead (in partnership with Harvard and Columbia universities) found that sarcasm increases creativity – including developing new ideas, and insights into problems – for both the person expressing the remark, and the recipient. After recalling a sarcastic comment that they received or made, participants in the study were significantly more successful in solving creative tasks, such as spotting the links between seemingly random groups of words, or in solving a puzzle through lateral thinking. Furthermore, the research team demonstrated that this boost to creativity is a direct result of sarcasm stimulating abstract thought processes.

By avoiding sarcasm in classrooms, says Emily, teachers dismiss a valuable opportunity.  She explains: “I want my students to embrace challenge, and move beyond the concrete into the ‘sweet spot’ where their creative juices are flowing. If sarcasm helps me achieve that, then I’ll embrace it”.

However, there is a caveat. The Insead research team also found that in situations where the expresser and receiver lacked a bond of trust, sarcasm increased conflict. Emily concludes: “Clearly sarcasm can only be justified when teachers and students have reciprocal trusting relationships. Instead of a blanket ‘never’ on sarcasm in our classrooms, we need to build more steadfast relationships with students. From that base, we should then set some rules as to when we should and should not use sarcasm in class. Trust has to come before witticism. But after that, let us lay down the intellectual gauntlet, and see our students fly”.

The full article is available on the TES website (subscription may be necessary).

Following the TES publication, the article also featured in The Times (subscription necessary), on a BBC Radio 4 discussion on the PM programme (scroll to 24 minutes) and on BBC World Service, Business Matters (scroll to 43 minutes)

TES | Emily Seeber | The Times | BBC Radio 4 PM | BBC World Service | Li Huang sarcasm study