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Sarcasm – Good or Bad?

In a previous post (here), I explained that I have been learning about how the brain processes humor.  It turns out that it is nearly impossible to discuss the concept of humor without stumbling upon a discussion about sarcasm.

For most of my career as an educational leader, speaker, and author I have warned educators about the negative effects of using sarcasm in the classroom.    The “lowest form of wit”, as Oscar Wilde famously said, often finds itself sneaking its way into our classrooms.

I recently read a blog by a high school math teacher by the name of Robert Ahdoot who explained the negative effects of sarcasm as eloquently as I’ve ever read.   In fact, he said it so well, I felt the need to quote him.  Read for yourself:

We need to understand that the core act of learning is really an act of vulnerability. Students expose themselves to potential embarrassment, shame and failure when venturing into the waters of what they don’t know. And they need to learn the stuff you’re offering, under a time crunch, through fatigue, stress and pressure. Within this framework, present yourself as their ally. Allies, by nature, must make the lives of their partners easier. Forcing students to decode what you may mean — especially if they’re already baffled — inevitably makes their lives harder.”

Quite simply, sarcasm sets students up for, at best, confusion and internal turmoil.  At worst, we are creating enemies.  From the perspective of the brain, think about the emotional responses we invoke when we make students the brunt of a sarcastic comment.   Harvard professor Francesca Gino said it well, “As a form of communication, sarcasm takes on the debt of conflict.”

While I haven’t changed my mind – sarcasm still has no place in a classroom – there might be one surprising benefit to sarcasm.  It appears that, under some circumstances during adult-to-adult interactions, sarcasm may provide a spark of creativity (Gino, 2013).  But, let’s keep this in perspective – this research suggests that sarcasm might help during interactions between adults who know each other and have a working relationship.  I won’t get into the specifics of that study; you can read more here if you are interested.

Humor is extremely powerful and can do wonders in the classroom as a learning and relationship tool.  Let’s just not confuse sarcasm with humor.

Bryan Harris, Ed.D. is a trainer/consultant Bryan Harris, Ed.D. has been an educator for over 25 years. He has served as a classroom teacher, an elementary school principal, and a district level director. Now working full time as an author, speaker, and consultant he has trained over 18,000 educators in powerful and effective strategies that increase student engagement and achievement. He is known for his engaging trainings and presentations that demonstrate relevant and practical strategies. He is the author of 5 books including the popular 2010 book Battling Boredom. He holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Education and a Master of Educational Leadership degree from Northern Arizona University. In 2013, he earned a doctorate (EdD) from Bethel University in Minnesota after studying factors impacting new teacher retention. He also holds a certification in brain-based learning from Jensen Learning Corporation. As the author of three highly-regarded books published by Routledge, he has a passion for helping educators discover ways to inspire and engage students.

1 Comment

  1. Eric Jensen

    Loved your comment ton it.
    Actually there is some research that shows the bad effects of sarcasm on the brain.
    Of course there are exceptions– but only when the two are in a close relationship.


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