Learning through laughter

Who was it that brought tea to England for the first time? I don’t remember. Was it one of those explorers from Elizabethan times? In my memory, it was.

In memory, there was a schools television programme, probably on the BBC about an explorer sending gifts home to his mother. Writing to her son, she sends her thanks for the tea but says she thinks that she prefers jam on her bread.

It was a silly, trivial piece of humour that brought a smile to the face of a schoolboy and, fifty years later, it still has the capacity to do so.

Humour was not plentiful in schools of the 1960s and 1970s. Watching Horrible Histories videos and realising how much history has been learned from those programmes and books, there is a wish that teaching could have had more of such a lightness of touch in former times. There are probably generations of people who might have thrived at school if learning had not been such a dry and laborious process.

Why was school the way it was? Was the way we were taught just a reflection of the way children had been taught since the Nineteenth Century? Did the Nineteenth Century schools just reflect the way that teaching had been done for centuries? Verbal learning by rote, repetition, repetition, and repetition, were the way of the medieval schools prior to the ready availability of books and writing paper. It was not until 1792 that Cambridge University introduced its first written examinations (a fact learned from an old episode of QI). Facts had to be learned verbally and questions had to be answered verbally; humour would presumably have been considered to be a diversion from the serious business of education.

Perhaps there was a deeper reason for the seriousness (and dullness) of education. The church controlled schools and colleges. The church was about the business of heaven and hell, so the church saw its task as to turn people from the ways of levity and laughter. The church sought to focus the thoughts of people upon following the teaching of the bishops so that people might avoid eternal damnation. There wasn’t much scope for humour when to trivialise anything taught by the church might bring condemnation and punishment. Medieval education wasn’t a bundle of laughs. How different European society might have been if the ecclesiastical authorities had understood that humour could be an effective means of teaching.

Learning is much more fun than it was, lessons will still remain when the laughter has gone. The image of tea leaves spread on bread and butter will remain fresh.

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