Devin Cassidy – Headmaster

I read with interest recently about phrases which are to be encouraged and discouraged in today’s classrooms and more generally in society. ‘Character education’, for example, is frowned upon by some as it may suggest that certain children lack ‘middle class’ norms. Language, it seems, has the potential to cause great offence but are we being a little over-sensitive?

I remember my tutor at University telling the class of young trainee teachers in no uncertain terms that sarcasm should never be used or directed towards children. However, years after Pink Floyd called for “no dark sarcasm in the classroom”, there are some who feel it actually does have a place in educating youngsters. Oscar Wilde described sarcasm as the lowest form of wit but the highest form of intelligence. Researchers recently suggested that it could unleash creativity.

Sarcasm was once regularly used as a way of controlling unruly children but has most certainly fallen out of favour in teaching methodology and the use of wit has been frowned upon. However, some believe there is evidence that, under the right circumstances, teachers might consider actively using sarcasm in classrooms to boost students’ creativity and abstract thinking.

Academics from Insead business school and Harvard and Columbia universities have found that sarcasm increased creativity. After recalling a sarcastic comment, participants in the study were significantly more successful in solving creative tasks, such as spotting the links between seemingly random groups of words. When a teacher says the opposite of what they mean, the student has to recognise this and then relate the conflicting ideas and access the true meaning.

However, there clearly need to be boundaries and good judgment. Sarcasm should not be used nastily and only if teachers and students have reciprocal trusting relationships. Here, really, is the problem, where such a relationship is lacking, sarcasm will almost always be inappropriate. It therefore comes back to the well-known key ingredient of successful teaching, relationships. Where relationships between pupils and teachers are strong, learning is most likely to be at its best and where relationships are weak, learning is unlikely to be a strength. The danger is, if used without good judgment, sarcasm might well undermine good relationships.

So next time you visit your child’s school, make a point of observing the relationships between pupils and between pupils and teachers. Are the relationships natural and trusting and at the same time do clear boundaries exist? Is there a healthy reciprocated respect between the teachers and pupils? Where this is in place you might reach a relatively reliable conclusion that the quality of teaching will be good without ever seeing a lesson!