Deputy Head's Blog: Sarcasm

In an age where one has to mind their ‘P’s and Q’s for fear of causing offence, and Schools are constantly criticised for ‘spoon feeding’ and ‘wrapping the pupils in cotton wool’, I have been most interested in an ongoing debate and exchange of views with regard to the use of sarcasm in Schools and, in particular, within the classroom environment.

The opposing points of view could not be more contrasting! I present a point of view that regards sarcasm of being extremely negative. There are many like this, but it would appear not to be a view shared by all educators!

 “One of the fundamental principles of human behaviour is that people ultimately respond better to positive consequences than to negative consequences. Sarcasm is considered a negative consequence. It should be the goal of every teacher to interact in a positive way with pupils and foster mutual respect. Nothing lowers a student’s respect for a teacher more quickly than does the use of sarcasm. Whether you speak sarcastically about an individual or the class as a whole, destroys a positive classroom environment and may prompt pupils to lash out with inappropriate comments of their own. The use of sarcasm suggests that you, as the teacher, do not know any better way of interacting and sets the stage for similar negative interactions between pupils themselves.”

My upbringing as a native of the City of Liverpool, renowned for its sarcasm and good humour, together with my ten years spent working in industry, leads me to believe that sarcasm is part of the real world. Sarcasm and good humour have, on occasion, been uplifting to me. The ability to laugh at oneself is a gift!

“Sarcasm is my second language,” says teacher Brittany C. “You are just exposing the pupils to various forms of language in which they will use later in life.” Meghan M. adds: “Better to learn how to recognise and understand sarcasm from a caring educator than send them into the world with no idea of how to deal with it.”

Sarcasm can build connections! “I teach teens,” says teacher Ayn N. “I think sarcasm, when done lovingly, can be one of the best ways to develop a connection. My trick is to be sarcastic about *myself* or be super ridiculous about it so that people get a laugh not a sting. For example, I might say something like: This test is super easy. My dog took it last night and did it blindfolded and passed with flying colours, so you should have no problems.

“I use it all the time and the kids love it,” echoes Kimberly T. “Be who you are and who your kids love.”

From a classroom teacher’s point of view, a good sense of humour and a healthy dose of sarcasm can be essential tools for getting through a teaching day. It would appear that the majority of teachers are in agreement that it is perfectly acceptable to make an occasional sarcastic comment in the staff room with colleagues. But should teachers use sarcasm in the classroom, when interacting with pupils?

Opposing the notion of sarcasm being negative, some research suggests that employing the ‘lowest form of wit’ actually boosts pupils’ creative thinking, despite teachers being advised never use it in lessons.

Yet, Emily Seeber, Head of Sciences at a well-known Independent School in Hampshire in an article that she wrote for the TES in January of this year, claims that this type of humour does have a place in the classroom – if we follow a few ground rules!

Emily commences with the well-known quote by Oscar Wilde, who described sarcasm as “the lowest form of wit, but the highest form of intelligence”. Emily proposes that, if boosting pupils’ intelligence is something teachers should be in the business of doing, why then is there such vehement opposition to sarcasm in the classroom?

Emily cites the fact that if you attempt Googling “sarcasm in the classroom”: you will get a barrage of propaganda instructing you to banish it from your teaching forever!

Emily does not agree with all this sarcasm-bashing. She thinks that teachers should be free to use sarcasm and in fact actively encouraged. In fact, I think that we should all be encouraged to use it.

More than this, believes Emily, there is evidence that, under the right circumstances, teachers should be actively using sarcasm in classrooms to boost pupils’ creativity and abstract thinking.

Emily may have a point! 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 (Organizational Behaviour and Human Decision Processes, November 2015).

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.

Furthermore, the research team demonstrated that this boost to creativity is a direct result of sarcasm stimulating abstract thought processes.

This should not be a huge surprise. When a teacher says the opposite of what they mean, the pupil has to recognise this and then relate the conflicting ideas and access the true meaning (the teacher does the same, but in reverse). Both are engaging abstraction in their quest for meaning.

By avoiding sarcasm in classrooms, teachers dismiss an opportunity to activate pupils’ abstract thinking and creativity; to get them to think like scientists or historians, rather than thinking like pupils of science or history. In Emily’s classroom, she is trying to help pupils to become not just knowledge assimilators, but also knowledge generators.

However, there is a caveat. The research team also found that in situations where the expresser and receiver lacked a bond of trust, sarcasm increased “conflict”. The recipient was more likely to misinterpret the ambiguous sarcastic comment as derisory and conflict-provoking. It may well be within such a context that sarcasm can be justifiably described as negative.

Clearly sarcasm can only be justified when teachers and pupils have reciprocal trusting relationships. Here, really, is the problem we have had with sarcasm: it has been thrown out of classrooms not because it is not useful, but because too often we lack the pupil-teacher relationships that have the essential trust to make it appropriate.

Back to Emily now. Emily states that whenever she takes the sarcastic approach – “That’s easily the best, and most elegant, solution I’ve ever seen” – Sarah looks back up with a glint in her eye. I can almost see the wheels turning in her mind, as she engages in a “battle of wit” to come up with a more inventive, more beautiful, more conceptual solution. Her processes of abstraction have been stimulated by the sarcastic comment: we are playing a game of intellectual cat-and-mouse, which she’s desperate to win.

Emily wants her pupils to embrace challenge and move beyond the concrete into the “sweet spot” where their creative juices are flowing. If sarcasm helps Emily achieve that, then she will embrace it.

So instead of a blanket “never” on sarcasm in our classrooms, we need to build more steadfast relationships with pupils. From that base, we should then set some rules as to when we should and should not use sarcasm in class. Emily’s would look something like this:

Sarcasm should only be used in situations of mutual trust: if you would not allow a student to make a sarcastic comment towards you, you should not make such a comment towards them.

Sarcasm should be used before problem-solving and creative-thinking tasks to initiate abstract thought processes.

Sarcasm should not be used to mock intrinsic features of pupils, but to call out their actions instead.

Sarcasm should be used to stretch pupils by daring them to take on ever more complex or conceptual challenges.

Use of sarcasm should be counterbalanced by sincere positive comments at other times to build and maintain trusting relationships.

Sarcasm requires a fine balance: it can be a powerful tool for promoting abstract, creative thinking, but an instrument of harm as well. Trust has to come before witticism. But after that, let us lay down the intellectual gauntlet, and see our pupils fly.

I conclude with a mythical comment written by a teacher for an end of term School Report for one of his pupils. Lowest for of wit, or highest form of intelligence? You decide!

“Johnny sets himself extremely low standards, which he constantly fails to achieve!”