Send in the clowns
Teachers don't usually like to be laughed at by their pupils. But at Alsop High School in Liverpool it is positively encouraged. This school goes to great lengths to help pupils see the funny side of life by using comedy as a teaching tool.
Having first raised the profile of comedy by holding in-house stand-up workshops for pupils, Alsop conducted an innovative six-week project in which a comedian planned and co-taught lessons with three teachers. The sessions involved pupils peeling onions using one hand to illustrate rock weathering; playing Just A Minute (the Radio 4 game show in which participants have to talk for 60 seconds without hesitation, repetition or deviation) based on curriculum topics; translating insults from Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing into Scouse, and watching silly cartoons on PowerPoint to illustrate geology.
"The kids were laughing out loud," says Stephanie Davies, a Liverpool-based comedian and self-styled laughter and humour specialist, who visited the comprehensive.
"Just having the kids using silly accents made them laugh, but it was crucial that they were learning too. Once teachers are comfortable with the techniques, it's simple and effective. All you have to do is open your eyes to the outside world, think outside the box and bring it into the classroom."
Stephanie insists that comedy also has a serious side. As long as boundaries are adhered to - jokes about sex, race and ethnicity are out - comedy is a powerful tool that improves pupils' attendance, interest and confidence. It can also enhance pupilteacher relationships and break down barriers to learning such as anxiety or stress.
Studies conducted by the Liverpool Comedy Trust (LCT), which was launched in 2002 to research how comedy can affect young people's wellbeing, confirm that humour can trigger positive changes in behaviour and performance.
"Humour can be a successful way of keeping pupils stimulated and interested," says Jenny Liddy from the LCT, which helped to co-ordinate the school project alongside Creative Partnerships, a Government-funded initiative that pairs schools with creative practitioners in the community.
"The teachers were keen to ensure that learning objectives were at the centre of each lesson. And by using comedy as a constructive tool, all the objectives were met."
Eddie Ormsby, head of humanities, was open to uncovering fun ways for his Year 10 pupils to learn - and to wearing a wig and wacky hat in the name of education.
"It did take a bit more effort in terms of planning with Stephanie and moving the desks out of the way, but it was definitely worth it," he says.
"Attendance was good and some of the activities were hilarious, even though they were quite simple. Just by playing funny music when they came in (Walking On Sunshine by Katrina and the Waves was a favourite) it felt a bit different, like it was a treat."
Richard Doyle, a science teacher, was also involved in the project. He was initially concerned that the lessons would not provide content for the pupils' BTEC portfolio - but he is happy to be proved wrong. "There was pressure to get work in, so I was quite anxious, but we achieved what we set out to achieve."
As an inner-city school where 40 per cent of the 1,800 pupils are on free school meals, the students can be reluctant to throw themselves into new initiatives, Richard says, but once they got into it, they enjoyed it.
"There was definitely more laughter in the classroom," he says. "They were learning almost without noticing. And it made it more fun for me, too."
An official evaluation of the project is not due until later this month, but Dr Denise Peerbhoy, a research fellow at Liverpool John Moores University, says early indications are positive. "It's given the teachers a better understanding of how to use different strategies in the classroom that can facilitate kinaesthetic and visual learning," she believes. "For pupils, it's been a rich and intensive experience. A lot of them said it got them interacting with people they wouldn't normally speak to. They respected and listened to each other much more."
But, according to Stephanie, there has to be a balance: "Some pupils prefer to work quietly, so comedy is not appropriate all the time - plus it would be exhausting. But I do think it should have a role in teacher training. It would offer them new teaching skills and would be a useful coping mechanism if ever they feel swamped."
Southampton Solent University launched the country's first degree in comedy writing and performance last September. "Humour is such an important life skill," says Chris Ritchie, the academic, author and stand-up comedian who runs the course.
"A pupil who uses words in a clever and imaginative way will be able to communicate with anyone and is likely to be memorable and successful.
Sitcoms such as The Office and The Royle Family touch us because they use humour to make serious points about society."
For Paul Dickenson, deputy head at Alsop and co-ordinator of the project, comedy is a winning formula: "Inner-city pupils know what they want, so they have to be interested in what they do and enjoy it. If they do, they'll learn. If not, they will view education in a negative light. In 10 years' time they're not going to remember copying out of a book, but they may well remember this."
THE BEST MEDICINE
Among its many beneficial physiological effects, laughter:
* lowers levels of dopamine, the chemical associated with elevated blood pressure.
* reduces stress hormones.
* triggers the release of endorphins, which produces a sense of wellbeing.
* strengthens the immune system.
* stimulates heart and blood circulation.
* tones abdominal and facial muscles.