Rigorous. Thorough. No-nonsense. Strict. Disciplinarian. Serious.
This is how some people describe the "best" teachers out there. And police officers. Yes, this student had a terrible day at school! They must be learning! Nothing sells knowledge like fear.
How many of us can really learn when we're afraid of getting it wrong? Learning comes from the mistakes, and the acceptance of those mistakes. However, schools are still getting this wrong. Kids are made to feel bad and shut down. The answer keys are all black and white with little room for grey. It's all around uncomfortable.
But when do we really learn? When we're engaged. Humor activates our sense of wonder, which is where all learning starts. Humor also activates our dopamine reward system and dopamine aids in long-term memory and goal-oriented motivation. It makes us feel good about what's in front of us. Studies show that teachers who employ appropriate jokes and humor throughout lessons result in students with better retention. Of course, jokes are great, but content-related jokes are even better.
Not only does humor work to retain content, it also works in relationship and community building. A classroom wherein everyone is laughing or in on the joke (especially if it relates to the learning) is incredible for the mood and camaraderie of the classroom, even leading to more peer mentoring. Again, we learn when we are comfortable, and I think we're most comfortable when we're laughing.
So, please, next time a student comes home upset with a boring day or strict teacher, do not automatically assume they were learning. And if you want to teach something to your child, there is no harm in making a joke, just make sure it's age and content-appropriate, and comes in between the instruction and repetition always present in learning.