Lighten up! Injecting humour into maths teaching

We all love to laugh, but how can we use comedy and comedic techniques to add a little sparkle to our STEM communication, outreach and teaching? Susan Okereke explains more.

This International Women’s Day (8 March), I had the privilege of participating in the Finding Ada panel discussion, titled Comedy and Communication, looking at how we can use comedy techniques in our STEM communications and teaching.

Maths teaching

Image Credit | Shutterstock

The Comedy and Communication panel discussion was an hour-long, live-streamed event hosted by comedy and science writer, Dr Helen Pilcher, and included: comedian and science comedy producer Kyle Marian Viterbo; biologist, YouTuber and science communicator Dr Sally Le Page; and me. But why me? I’m a maths teacher and communicator, not a comedian!

Well, I’m a maths teacher and communicator who thinks playfulness and humour are an essential part of the learning environments I aim to build. I passionately believe that numeracy is an essential basic skill that everyone should be confident at, like reading and writing, and through my teaching, presenting and writing I hope to challenge the negative views that maths is boring, too difficult and irrelevant to people’s everyday lives.

Being involved in the comedy and communication panel led me to reflect on the role comedy plays in my teaching and communication, and it confirmed my belief that comedy is a powerful tool that teachers, especially STEM teachers, should use more often.

STEM subjects have a reputation for being serious and dry and, specifically with maths, many people are intimidated by the subject because they believe ‘you’re either right or wrong’ and that is all that matters. I’m on a mission to challenge this common misconception. Maths is so much more than the final correct answer, it is about seeing patterns, making connections and solving problems, which is an emotional and collaborative process.

My work as a maths communicator is an extension of this mission. Over the years I have been involved in a variety of amazing STEM events and projects. like Festival of the Spoken Nerd and Maths Inspiration. These events strive to bring maths and science to life for audiences by highlighting the weird and wonderful places they can be found. Also, the podcast ‘Maths Appeal’ I co-host with Bobby Seagull aims to make maths more accessible to everyone, by including maths puzzles and interviews with maths champions from the worlds of tech, entertainment, comedy and education.

As a teacher, I have high expectations for my learners, but I also subscribe to the idea that if learners enjoy their learning environment, they are more likely to engage actively with their learning and therefore retain more of the information. In my classroom I aim to create a safe space for learners so they feel comfortable trying problems, making mistakes and communicating with each other, and injecting a little humour can be a great way to facilitate this process and build a sense of community, while also showing I am a real human being.

There is also a substantial body of neuroscience research and cognitive studies that explain why we remember things that make us laugh and educational research that indicates that humour, used in an effective way, can improve retention in learners, from early years through to university.

Working with Finding Ada in preparation for the panel discussion also opened my eyes to the undeniable issue that there are much fewer women than men in STEM fields, despite evidence that girls do well in such subjects at school. Sadly, few girls go on to study STEM subjects at further and higher education, even fewer go on to get jobs in these fields and by the time you get to the boardroom there are hardly any women to be seen.

A reason cited for this issue is there are too few female role models in STEM, but organisations like Finding Ada are doing a great job to change this. Finding Ada supports women in STEM through projects like the Ada Lovelace Day (12 October), which celebrates female achievements in STEM. Other projects include the Finding Ada Network, which provides peer mentorship and exclusive career development and gender equality content for women in STEM, and the Finding Ada Conference (20-22 July), which shares best practice and advice.

It was such a pleasure to speak to, learn from and laugh with such incredible scientists on the Finding Ada comedy and communication panel, and if you are a STEM teacher who would like to add more comedy into your STEM communication, I encourage you to watch the discussion. It is full of ideas and advice, and here is a suggestion to get you started – watch some science communicators online and see how they incorporate comedy into their presentations, then have a go at including some humour into your work. It might not be great at first but, remember, practice makes progress! 


Further information


Susan Okereke is a maths communicator, maths education consultant and teacher facilitator.

This is a taster article from the summer 2021 issue of inTuition.