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I keep coming across general wisdom of the type, "A teacher has to be a clown". This attitude is gaining traction, e.g. as in this TED talk.

This leaves me quite baffled. Thinking back to my own teachers, the ones I admire most and feel I learnt the most from were all serious and single-mindedly focused. Maybe it is for that reason that I have become a similar teacher, though not by a conscious decision on my part. My students find me a tough teacher but I receive emails several semesters later thanking me.

I have discussed this with colleagues around me and while they agree with me, they argue that the current iPhone generation has so many resources available to them, working hard to grab their attention should also be the teacher's task. Afterall, the argument goes, they may just receive better instruction online through a world leader in the subject.

I am just wondering what others feel about this.

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Richard Feynman, David Attenborough, and Carl Sagan were not clowns. The best teachers I have ever listened to were passionate. Humour might jolt an audience awake and make them like the speaker as a person, but it will rarely teach anything or incite passion for a subject. Appropriate humour in the classroom can provide a welcome reprieve, but it is no substitute for enthusiasm and good teaching skills. –  Moriarty Apr 27 at 15:13
the current iPhone generation — "Kids these days just can't concentrate" arguments are just as stupid now as they were in ancient Greece. People who use this argument assume that their own behavior as students was typical, and then blame some exogenous distracting factor (iPads, video games, television, popular music, radio, newspapers, books, writing, fire, etc.) when reality doesn't match their assumptions. –  JeffE Apr 27 at 18:28
@Moriarty I don't want to drive this offtrack, but there's literature to suggest that Feynman was quite a clown. Did he take a very serious approach to teaching, but clown around in other areas? –  kojiro Apr 28 at 0:08
@kojiro In the context of this question, I would call a "clown" someone who was (or tried to be) funny but whose teaching was ineffectual. Feynman was entertaining, but I wouldn't call him a clown. Taking your teaching seriously doesn't mean you always have to be serious. –  Moriarty Apr 28 at 6:33
Where does this "clown" thing come from? You can entertain without being a clown. That ted talk mentions "enthrall", a thing that Feynman certainly does. We are 'fighting' a strawman here: suddenly we are looking at a statement about being a clown that come from nowhere. You need to entertain is / can be something else then being a clown, and therefore arguing the latter is incorrect doesn't really impact the thing that is getting 'traction' –  Nanne Apr 28 at 12:55
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8 Answers 8

Teachers and professors don't need to be clowns. However, they do need to engage their students.

The old mode of a teacher standing at the front of the lecture hall talking "at" students for an hour or ninety minutes at a time is a cultural relic, rather than necessarily the best way to educate students, as learning in a lecture is usually at best passive.

There are many ways to get around this problem—including engaging in class discussions, demonstrations, group learning, and, yes, sometimes humor can be used to make the point. But just as teaching should not be a stale recitation of facts, neither is it open mic night at your local comedy club. Learning is serious business, but it doesn't have to be boring, either.

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its important to note which culture this is a relic of. in the case of korea, its not a relic but the current situation –  user1938107 Apr 28 at 10:27
It's still common practice in many countries, including much of Europe—but the idea itself is clearly no longer advisable. –  aeismail Apr 28 at 10:48
@user1938107: I think the argument goes that if the lecture is in no way interactive, then there's no point nowadays giving it in person. The same thing could be conveyed better by a video or even just in text. That assumes any variation between different lecturers, or the same lecturer on different occasions of giving the course, is for unessential reasons. I had some courses where the syllabus was defined by what was covered in lecturers, and so actually a verbal lecture might have been the most efficient way for the lecturer to deliver the material -- but that's relatively rare I think. –  Steve Jessop Apr 28 at 15:43
... so it's not the case that "talk at students" lectures are never engaging, nor that all teaching must be interactive. However, "talk at students" lectures no longer, strictly speaking, need to be held in a giant room at a fixed time with all students listening at once. The lecturer could post a video. Of course in real life in much of Europe even "talk at students" lectures have at least a minimal scope for interaction, so you'd need more sophisticated arguments to rule out current practice entirely. –  Steve Jessop Apr 28 at 15:48
@SteveJessop i think there are two different points, one being the teachers role in engaging students, and the other is the teacher being available for students to ask a question, with no responsibility in engaging them. The latter is pretty common and I usually dont hear arguments against it –  user1938107 Apr 28 at 23:08
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I think it's really easy to underestimate a student's ability to sense passion and dedication and respond to it. While cheap gimmicks might work, passion always shows if it exists, and students respect that.

Passion is a form of authenticity that can't be easily faked. Similarly, a natural comic can teach well with jokes, but someone who's forcing humor to be "entertaining" and comes off as inauthentic.

So while I don't know where you got this idea that "a teacher should be a clown", it is nevertheless true that a teacher should show that they care about their subject, their students and teaching, and this can be done in many ways.

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Give me reasons to listen to your lesson, and I will be entertained. There is a reason for what I signed up for the class, anyway. Also note that, if I want a clown, I can go in the evening to a performance; way easier than getting up 7 am to go to a lesson.

As Moriarty said, you need passionate, engaging educators. You raise an interesting point with the online courses: why would I follow a local lesson, when I could be listening to a top-class eminence? Again, you need to give me a reason: interactivity, quick doubt solving, a syllabus tailored to what I specifically need in my field... or plainly better explanations (world geniuses can still be improved).

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Reiterating a part of other good answers: the "real" version of the question is about "added value". Is there any reason to come to class as opposed to just reading the book/notes, or looking at things on-line? If the instructor does not, or cannot, add value beyond reading the book... etc... why in the world would a student want to show up? This is not at all about the misguided over-specific "will it be on the final?" information, but about the content.

I have had the good fortune to attend lectures from some very good mathematicians, and/but a certain number gave amazingly bad talks. Painstakingly copied onto a blackboard their notes... often without saying a word. Even with wonderful notes, there was no evident reason for a group of people to show up at a particular time, sit quietly in a cramped space, and copy (presumably fallibly) into their own notes what could have been photocopied...

Yes, such scenarios are a slightly extreme failure, but do highlight the issue of "adding value". The model of your copying notes (which may have been copied from some other source) onto the board, to be copied by students, ... is just silly, all the more so in modern times.

But to "be a clown"? Depends. By itself, probably this is dumb. To be witty about the narrative, to be facile, to be aware, surely helps keep the class alive, and these affect-oriented things are not replicated in text. Next: how to be better than videos? First, make it clear, by function, that you are reading the facial expressions and body language of the students, whether or not they overtly ask questions. Make it clear that you are _paying_attention_to_them_. Videos don't do that (quite yet...)

Just joking around can have a nice ice-breaking effect, but is just killing time unless highly integrated into the programme.

I think a good general criterion is "added value"... some of which could be "entertainment", but then there's the question of movement toward your goals for the course.

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It's largely a question of balance. In a single-teacher, tens/hundreds-of-students classroom, "one size fits all" is a necessary evil* to some extent. Practicing versatility of style and introducing variety (e.g., by having some serious, nose-to-the-grindstone days mixed with some days of light edutainment – and telling students which it's going to be at the start of class) can help ensure that your "size" fits most students at some point. If you don't mix things up haphazardly, you can at least create the impression that you're a balanced educator and not stuck in any one style. Sometimes all it takes to get students on-board with your education plan is to cater to their expectations just enough to get through to them once. Afterward, they may follow you out of their comfort zones more willingly, even if it doesn't come as naturally as they'd like.

There's an opportunity cost every time you serve one kind of student preferences that others don't share. The "evil" of a one-size-fits-all educational system is that by failing to present curricula in modes that suit several major learning styles, some nontrivial subpopulation is always served poorly. In certain manners, one can try to suit several styles all at once (e.g., by mixing audiovisual presentation with individual and group exercises), but this makes it difficult to focus attention on any one element, and costs time both in preparation and in class. You can't literally attend to all elements at once – multitasking is somewhat misconceived.

Humor and entertainment value in education are similar issues. As is the case with humor and entertainment outside of an academic context, you can't please every audience without considerable talent, and you can't please every audience member no matter how funny you are. Within an academic context, you face an even greater challenge as a comedian: contextual expectation violation. Some students may expect clowning, but probably just as many won't, and will consider you unprofessional if you cater too much to those who do.

Thus it's a question of balance and how you want to strike it in your classes. As I see it, it's a question of whether to try to (dis)please the same people throughout the academic term, or whether to give every student a more equal mixture of (dis)service.

  • Do you want to choose a particular (set of) style(s) and stick to it (or them)?
    • This is somewhat necessary, because no one can cover the full range of teaching styles in any one class. It is also wise to play to your strengths and not force unnatural styles.
    • A somewhat necessary consequence is that certain students will not approve of your chosen approach, and their educational outcomes may suffer. However, those whose preferences you do serve will approve of you and thrive more for every additional moment in which your approach matches their preferences.
  • Do you want to try to mix up your delivery and serve every preference some of the time?
    • Some amount of variety is inevitable, as you're human and bring a slightly different energy to every day's class. Certain topics may deserve different styles of presentation, and coverage of most will benefit from taking multiple perspectives. Arguably the fair approach is to try to give equal time to all students' preferred modalities.
    • This can be a strain, both for you and the students who recognize that you could teach the class their way more often than you do. Most people will have some weaknesses, and class time might not be the best time to work on those as a teacher. Part of the necessary evil of a one-teacher-per-class system is that students have less choice over whether a teacher suits their preferences. You can only do so much about it by playing the part of several different teachers over the course of the course.

Either way, someone will be pleased and someone else will be displeased with any given element of your class. Clowning around is no more universally acceptable than any other style.

*A fairer way of describing the one-size-fits-all approach would be as a conventional compromise with efficiency concerns regarding budgetary and labor limitations. It might not be necessary to teach individual students in a several-students-per-teacher environment – home-schooling and one-on-one tutoring are counterexamples – but as a society with scarce resources for serving boundless educational demand, this status quo is at least necessary de facto. Maybe this is for lack of a better idea, but I haven't got one myself, and most would be difficult to implement at best.

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Teachers are teachers and clowns are clowns, should not be confused. Even so, humour, multimedia, vivid talks, are important elements to facilitate communication. Everybody loves to be taken seriously and students are not exceptions.

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I think it depends on the topic. Teachers should first and foremost be a great teacher. That person has to be ready, present material in an understandable manner, answer questions, all that fun stuff. Some more dry topics require extra showmanship on teacher's behalf. That is the only time when you have to go out of your way to "entertain" students. Other times, communicate with students like you always would.

I find that professors that talk to students like equals get more of my attention.

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For me a teacher shouldn't need to be a entertainers. A better teacher should understand and know how to make his topic more interesting and friendly to it's listener. To make a lesson to be more interesting is to show the relevance and its application. To make a lesson to be lively is to use some visual aids to be easily understood and to help picture the purpose of the topic in that way listeners are not bored and help there imagination guided.

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Ivan, Good point about visual tools. We capture their attention long enough for them to listen to us. Then, if the teacher isn't knowledgeable & they don't engage them in lively conversation, students will quickly "tune them out." –  techmsi May 2 at 18:06
Yap exactly.. We hope the next generation of educators will apply the this concept and make use of the visual representation. –  Ivan Igniter Jun 30 at 2:11
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