Creative Education
2011. Vol.2, No.3, 189-192
Copyright © 2011 SciRes DOI:10.4236/ce.2011.23026
Creating Student Engagement? HMM: Teaching and Learning
with Humor, Music, and Movement
William B. Strean
University of Alberta, Alberta, Ca nada.
Received April 7th, 2011; revised May 4th, 2011; accepted May 17th, 2011.
With growing concerns about student engagement, the theme of creative teaching and learning provides an ex-
cellent catalyst to consider methods that enhance students’ classroom experiences. Good teaching is akin to
weaving a fabric of connectedness between student, teacher, and subject (Palmer, 2007). Teacher-student con-
nection and student engagement are the two most important ingredients in teaching (Lowman, 1995). This paper
explores three effective methods of weaving the fabric and engaging students in higher education. Examples of
how to use humor, music, and movement to deepen learning while adding energy, engagement, and interaction
are offered. A review o f research supporting the meth o d s e x p l ored in this paper is included.
Keywords: Student Engagement, Humor, Music, Movement
I’m going to begin with a joke so we can get the humor out
of the way. Although that may have been a joke (you can check
to see if you were amused), the perspective that I will advocate
here is that humor is not about telling jokes and not essentially
about getting laughs. Humor is fundamentally about a mood of
lightness that facilitates learning. In virtually any learning en-
vironment, students enter with some level of tension, anxiety,
and/or resistance. If the stress response is activated, it can de-
crease the brain’s capabilities to learn and remember (Kaufeldt,
2010). An atmosphere of humor helps to dissipate negative
emotions that can impede learning. So lighten up. You have
arrived at a place in life where you have the luxury of reading
an article about creative education. Relax and consider how the
ideas and suggestions that follow may enhance your students’
engagement and perhaps enliven your own teaching experi-
A Somatic Perspective
Somatics provides a valuable way of considering our stu-
dents and our selves that informs and supports the use of humor,
music, and movement in learning. Please bear with the serious-
ness for a few moments as it provides an important rationale for
why the particular approaches advocated here are valuable in
enhancing engagement and learning. The term “somatics,”
comes from soma—the body in its wholeness. From a somatic
perspective, we cannot distinguish the self from the body. The
characteristics that constitute the self (emotions, actions, beliefs,
interactions, perception, ethics, morals, and drive for dignity)
all emerge from the physical form (e.g., Strozzi-Heckler, 2003;
2007). Somatics rejects the notion that there is a disembodied,
self-contained self that is separate from the life of one’s body.
Clearly these ideas depart drastically from pervasive Cartesian
discourses that have dominated and also posited a determinable,
objective reality disconnected from subjective experience
(Strean & Strozzi-Heckler, 2009). The loss of somatic knowing
and the worldview derived from Descartes’s dualism carrie s its
own logical conclusion: Since I do not have immediate contact
with any of the realities of my ordinary life, I can be deluded
about any of them (Johnson, 1983).
Most of our understanding of the mind and rationality are
based on metaphors that are not supported by cognitive science.
Take for example the enduring notion that rational thought is
dispassionate. We know this to be false from studies in neuro-
science (Damasio, 1994). Those who have lost the capacity to
be emotionally engaged in their lives cannot reason appropri-
ately about moral issues. The traditional Western conception of
the person with disembodied reason and an objective world
must be replaced with the conception of an embodied person.
Among the important implications for teaching and learning is
the recognition of the centrality of emotion. All learning occurs
in a mood and part of fostering student engagement includes
attending to and managing the mood of the classroom.
“It is anybody’s guess as to how many of us … walk around
in schools and universities with feelings of bodily and emo-
tional stress because of the disembodiment involved in how we
are taught to teach, to learn, and to do research. Probably there
are hordes of us. As we become adults, we learn how to repress
somatic awareness, and many of us can no longer tell when our
stomachs know better than our minds, when our bodies feel
completely wrong, or why we develop headaches. We cover up
the stress caused by the disembodiment of our work by still
more work, or by still another cup of coffee. Lack of meaning,
which points, by definition, to the loss of a participatory way of
knowing, to lack of somatic and emotional involvement (see
Berman, 1989; Johnson, 1983; Tarnas, 1991), is no longer ac-
curately felt, understood, and acted on (Heshusius & Ballard,
1996: p. 3).”
Humor, music, and movement can reawaken our somatic
awareness and assist fuller and deeper learning experiences. A
couple of quotations that speak to somatic approaches to educa-
tion are
“Book learning tends to stay in the book” and “Learning is a
myth until it is embodied” (Strozzi Heckler, 1993). The frame-
works and classroom practices I will address are about getting
learning into the body. Parker Palmer (2007) tells us that good
teaching is akin to weaving a fabric of connectedness between
student, teacher, and subject. Three effective methods of weav-
ing the fabric and engaging students are humor, movement, and
Student Engagement
The phrase “student engagement” has come to describe “how
involved or interested students appear to be in their learning and
how connected they are to their classes, their institutions, and
each other” (Axelson & Flick, 2011: p. 38). Today’s students
have been accused of presenting an attitude of just wanting the
information the teacher wants them to know for the test and
they presume that they will then both get what they need
(Barkley, 2010). There is a continuum of what is meant by
“student engagement” and a concomitant range of benefits from
grabbing attention to facilitating deep learning. Particularly in
higher education, where there tends to be increased focus on the
cognitive domain and decreased concentration on physical and
emotional considerations, it is valuable to include classroom
approaches that begin with enhancing attention and move to-
ward deepening learning.
After reading a few mind-numbing paragraphs you may be
convinced of some academic currency undergirding the light-
hearted adventures that are about to follow, but you may also be
feeling your first taste of sluggishness. Among the benefits of
humor, music, and movement is increasing students’ (and your)
aliveness. Although the full version is probably not warranted
in most contexts, one way to get ready to learn is BrainDance
(Gilbert, 2006). The BrainDance is a series of exercises includ-
ing eight fundamental movement patterns that we move through
in the first year of life. These patterns are crucial to the wiring
of our central nervous system. As babies, we did these move-
ments on our tummies on the floor, but students may be reluc-
tant to go to that extreme and it may also muss the professor’s
tweed jacket. However, cycling through these patterns sitting or
standing has been found to be beneficial. This “dance” is an
excellent full body and brain warm-up for children and adults in
all settings. The BrainDance can be done at the beginning of
class; before tests, performances, and presentations; and during
computer work and TV watching for brain reorganization,
oxygenation, and recuperation. Ideally you would stand up now
and get the somatic experience of BrainDance, but unless you
have participated previously, you’ll just have to take my word
for its awesomen e ss. (More information is availabl e a t
Opening Sounds
In many learning environments, there is not the time or in-
clinations for something as elaborate as BrainDance, but there
are other ways to grab attention and to create a mood of light-
ness or playful exploration. One use of music is playing a clip
right at the start of class. Some of my favorites include “Get
Ready for This” (2 Unlimited) and “Let’s Get it Started” (Black
Eyed Peas). Depending on your/students’ musical tastes you
might prefer “Start Me Up” (Rolling Stones) or “Wanna Be
Startin’ Something” (King of Pop, RIP). For an early morning
class, a bugle sound of revile might fit the bill. In addition,
other sound clips like the Three Stooges saying “Hello, Hello,
Hello,” or Barbara Walters from 20/20, “What you are about to
hear is bizarre, unsettling, and riveting” can engage the crowd
and help you to grab everyone’s attention. Another effective
use of music is to have background music playing as students
are entering class to set a particular mood such as curious (e.g.,
“Questions”) or energized (e.g., “Pump UP the Jam”), or re-
laxed (e.g., reggae or “Ave Maria” but not “Relax” by Frankie
Goes to Hollywood). You can enjoy your own creativity by
selecting music and sounds for a chosen purpose.
The use of humor, music, and movement, and, perhaps, all of
teaching depends on the ontological status of the teacher. More
simply put, “who you are being” is decisive. The Be-Do-Have
model provides a useful way to inquire into how we approach
our teaching. Most of us tend to live our lives backwards from
this model. You have probably heard yourself or those around
you say, “If I had more time...” or “If I had more money...” then
I would be happy. Such an approach may be swimming up-
stream against the “appropriate flow of life.” The underlying
idea of beginning with being has probably been around for
thousands of years, but it is not part of our contemporary con-
versations. Did you ask yourself how you want to be today as
you read this article? No. It would probably be a bit weird if
you did. What if we pause before we enter our classrooms and
say, “I’m going to go to teach anyway, I may as well choose
how I’m going to be.” What would be a good way for you to be
right now? Inquisitive? Curious? Amazed? Amused? Happy? It
is pretty clear that we have a great deal more power to select
our ways of being than we tend to use. Although adding humor,
music, and movement to your teaching may be good things to
“do,” if you can bring a mood of lightness and generate a way
of being that supports student engagement, the actions you take
will be fantastically more effective.
Further Rationale
The literatures on attention problems in lectures as well as
patterns of discussions in groups support the merits of all the
approaches suggested here. An additional ground for including
humor, music, and movement in our classes emerges from our
understanding of attention span in lectures. Various reports
(Bligh, 2000; McKeachie & Svinicki, 2006; Young, Robinson,
& Alberts, 2009) demonstrate that when listening to a lecture,
attention drops precipitously after 10 to 30 minutes. Various
teachers seek to contest attention problems with straight lecture
by using discussion. Yet, studies of student participation in
such discussions found that in groups of five, the most engaged
person contributes 43% but the least engaged member only
contributes 7%; in groups of eight, the least engaged five mem-
bers contribute a mere 3 to 9% (Gibbs, 1992).
W. B. STREAN 191
I Like to Move It Move It
Because of these issues of attention span, a great way to in-
crease energy and engagement is with physical movement. It is
ideal when movement can be incorporated directly with the
learning objectives of the day (see below), but short activities
simply to shift attention and awaken the students is beneficial.
Again, you can use your creativity to invent options that work
best in your context. Some examples include having all the
students do some imaginary biking or hiking in their chairs. Or
you might have a real or imagined ball that students pass
around the room. It could be as basic as a simple ‘stand, stretch,
and breathe’ moment. Personally, I enjoy laughter exercises as
they have the multiple benefits of mood enhancement, in-
creased oxygen, and playful movement. In a general sense,
movement can facilitate learning, enhance class cohesion, offer
an environment that promotes laughter and fun while engaging
learners, and heighten students’ interest in attending and par-
ticipating in class (Lengel & Kuczala, 2010). There are times
when I’ve noticed either at the start of a class or during a ses-
sion, that the group seems lethargic. (This happens frequently
during midterm week.) By having everyone stand up and do
some playful activities, it easily produces some laughs, in-
creases the energy level, and gets the group more engaged in
the learning tha t will follow.
A variety of movements and activities can be essential in get-
ting learning “into the body.” The general point is rather than
speaking about a concept, students can live it. For example,
instead of a discussion of rapport, students could work in pairs
and do exercises that involve mirroring or a two-step. Other
examples of using movement to teach bodily dispositions of
leadership, flow and optimal performance, and how to embody
humor have been elaborated previously (Strean, 2010).
How about Humor?
Although learning is serious business, heaviness and nega-
tive emotions can get in the way of successful pedagogy. In
addition to fostering valuable lightness, humor builds the
teacher-student connection (e.g., Berk, 1998), and this connec-
tion is essential for learning, satisfaction, and retention. Re-
search demonstrates that with humor, students learn better and
remember more; and absorb information more quickly and
retain it longer (e.g., Bryant & Zillman,1989; Opplinger, 2003;
Schmidt, 2002). Furthermore, humor can aid teaching by pro-
viding amusement, breaking up content, bringin g back a ttentio n,
lightening t he mood , increas ing moti vation, r educing monoton y,
and providing a mental break (Neumann, Hood, & Neumann,
2009). Humor increases students’ enjoyment of learning, per-
ceptions of how much they learned and positive feelings about
the course and instructor (Wanzer & Frymier, 1999). Baum-
gartner and Morris (2008) showed humor-based teaching is
clearly more engaging and interesting for the students and in-
corporating humor into the classroom can have a positive effect
on learning in higher education. Interested readers can find
more information on both the benefits of laughter and humor
and specific strategies to use humor in the classroom elsewhere
(e.g., Berk, 1998; Strean, 2008).
Personally, I have found one of the easiest ways to incorpo-
rate humor into my classes is using myself as the easy target.
By poking fun at myself, I can decrease the distance between
students and “the professor.” By showing my own humanity
and foibles, I believe I make it easier for students to relax and
to take risks. At the beginning of an activity class where stu-
dents were about to participate in some novel tasks and I felt
some anxiety in the group, I told them how one of their peers
suggested I remind her of Sue Sylvester (the character from
Glee who is a ruthless bully to both students and faculty mem-
bers). Perhaps I had worn too many matching track suits to
class—but in sharing this comment and suggesting I was not
flattered, the class had a good laugh at my expense and they
seemed tangibly more at ease to purse the learning of the day.
More about Music
Music can humanize, personalize, and energize courses; tap
into students’ interests, and elicit positive feelings and associa-
tions; and involve students in relevant and meaningful interac-
tion (Dunlap & Lowenthal, 2010). From a physiological per-
spective, there is growing evidence that music can effectively
elicit highly pleasurable emotional responses (e.g., Krumhansl,
1997; Rickard, 2004). Neuroimaging studies have confirmed
those responses and shown “enhanced functional and effective
connectivity between brain regions mediating reward, auto-
nomic, and cognitive processing provides insight into under-
standing why listening to music is one of the most rewarding
and pleasurable human experiences” (Menon & Levitin, 2005:
p. 175). Interestingly, music-induced emotional states have
been linked to dopamine release, the chemical that sends “feel
good” signals to the rest of the body (Salimpoor, Benovoy,
Larcher, Dagher, & Zatorre, 2011).
“Music speaks directly to the emotions. It allows us to be in
touch with the pulse of life.” (Julio Olalla, personal communi-
cation, October, 2005). Music bypasses the cognitive filters and
works wonders in a variety of ways to enhance student en-
gagement. In addition to setting a mood or increasing energy, a
well-chosen music clip can help to reinforce a learning point.
Closing Sounds
Just as we saw how opening sounds and music can create a
mood or grab attention, finishing class with appropriate sound
clips can be a reminder to leave on a light note. For example
“This is the end” (The Doors), “Tune in tomorrow, same bat
time, same bat channel” (from the TV Show, Batman), “and so
we come to another fun-filled episode of Rocky and Bullwin-
kle” (guess), or “Ladies and gentlemen, we’re desperately short
on time, thanks for watching, good night everybody” (David
Letterman) can all work nicely in the right context. In that spirit,
let us move toward a finish with the lyrics of Carol Burnett:
I’m so glad we had this time together,
Just to have a laugh, or sing a song.
Seems we just get started and before you know it
Comes the time we have to say, “So long”.
Increasing student engagement is serious business. Para-
doxically, bringing some lightheartedness to the process tends
to make us more effective. As we ponder and explore various
methods to connect with and to engage our students, humor,
music, and movement appear to be three valuable methods.
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