Oscar Wilde famously described sarcasm as “the lowest form of wit, but the highest form of intelligence”. If I’m not mistaken, boosting students’ intelligence is something teachers should be in the business of. So why then is there such vehement opposition to sarcasm in the classroom?
I have heard sarcasm demonised as “toxic humour” and “cruel and demeaning”. I have heard “warm-hearted and humorous” teachers contrasted with “lazy and sarcastic” ones. And as far back as 1928, Thomas H Briggs argued that students considered sarcastic teachers to be “taking advantage of [their] position or training to inflict mental punishment and pain by belittling a pupil with the intent to hurt” (The School Review, November 1928). Just try Googling “sarcasm in the classroom”: you will get a barrage of propaganda instructing you to banish it from your teaching forever.
I don’t agree with all this sarcasm-bashing. I think we should be free to use sarcasm. In fact, I think that we should all be encouraged to use it. I fail to see why responding to a student who’s forgotten their homework with, “You remembered your work again. I’m so glad to see you’re taking your education seriously,” is intrinsically more humiliating than a public telling off: “Late again. This is completely unacceptable; you are wasting your education.”
More than this, I believe there is evidence that, under the right circumstances, teachers should be actively using sarcasm in classrooms to boost students’ creativity and abstract thinking.
Wit and wisdom
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, or Duncker’s candle problem (participants have a candle, matches and a box of tacks, and need to attach the candle to the wall without dripping wax).
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 student 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 students’ abstract thinking and creativity; to get them to think like scientists or historians, rather than thinking like students of science or history. In my classroom, I am trying to help students to become not just knowledge assimilators, but also knowledge generators.
Motivate the student
Let’s look at an example: imagine a student has been working on a difficult problem I have set, and come up with a functional, but clunky, brute-force solution. I can then respond either with sarcasm, or supportive encouragement, to motivate the student to have a second look.
In the “supportive feedback” scenario, I might say to her: “Well done, Sarah. You have made a really good effort at working out the solution. I think you can make some improvements by looking at this particular area, and trying an alternative strategy. Why don’t you have a go?” To which she might, and I have often seen this, respond: “But my solution works, so why do I need to try a different approach?” Satisfied with her initial success, she switches off from further challenge.
However, when I take 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.
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 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.
Clearly sarcasm can only be justified when teachers and students 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 student-teacher relationships that have the essential trust to make it appropriate.
So 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. Mine 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 students, but to call out their actions instead.
- Sarcasm should be used to stretch students 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 students fly.
Emily Seeber is head of sciences at Bedales School in Hampshire