Make 'Em Laugh; Make 'Em Think

Thursday November 3, 2016

With education being crammed into a metaphorical Delorean and heading back to the future in the name of progress and young people increasingly measured on their ability to remember facts to pass exams to make the data look good, I can't help but think of Einstein's telling line: 

'We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used to create them.'

Rather than dividing young people into the grammar school vs sec mod kids (again) and education being the regurgiation of immutable facts (again), Einstein reminds us that the thinking our young people develop needs to be flexible, adaptable and versatile if they are to be successful, happy, fulfilled and make a better stab of running the world than we ever have. 

It is imperative, then, for their emotional intelligence, health, well-being and happiness that kids are encouraged and enabled to think for themselves. They need the confidence to express their thoughts, feelings and ideas so that they can un-learn and re-learn, have the confidence to change and not just cope with the 21st century but be happy and successful within it.

Or in the words of the American philosopher Eric Hoffer:

'In a world full of change the learners will inherit the earth, while the knowers will find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.'

My job, if you can call it that, is travelling the country working with young people and their teachers to share with them ideas to help develop such agile, creative and independent thinking. The secret weapon I use on my travels? Laughter. It is something that goes hand in hand with learning in a way that so many teachers (or maybe its their headteachers?) underestimate.  Here, let me share my Top Ten list of actuvties to help develop some free thinkig in your classroom  - and have a bit of a laugh as you do it. Enjoy! 

1 – Hands free policy


80% of the questions asked in a classroom context are answered by 20% of the students.

Everyone has a contribution to make but some may need more time. A hands-free policy, if set up at the beginning of the session, informs students that at some point they may be asked to give a thought/feeling, or ask a question/make a statement. This technique will encourage thinking and will stop students switching off.

Another way of doing this is to number the students 1,2 and 3, then when posing a question you may suggest that you will be seeking a response from the number 1s or perhaps 1 and 3s or which ever configuration you choose. It’s a great way to keep the students engaged and on their toes.


2 – Understanding your brain!!


Confidence and empowerment are the keys to creating an atmosphere conducive to independent thinking. Whenever I work with students it’s imperative that they understand on a neurological level how outstanding they really are.

Things to remember about your brain

1 - Intelligence is not fixed. You can grow your brain, it’s like a muscle, if you give it a work out regularly it gets more flexible and the synaptic connections become stronger, faster and quicker.

2 - You have 3 three brains!! Reptilian brain (small and deals with basic survival), the limbic system (deals with emotion and memory) and The Neo Cortex (the thinking, reasoning, reflecting bit that makes us human).

3  - The more we know about our brains, the more we realise we don't know. But teaching young people about what they have between their ears and how to get the best out of it makes real sense.

For more info on the brain and how it works get a copy of Associate Dr Andrew Curran's book The Little Book of Big Stuff about The Brain.


3 – RING

When engaging with students I have found the mnemonic RING to be invaluable and all my work is based on the four principles of RING - Relevant, Interesting, Naughty and Giggle.

Think of a lesson you enjoyed most during your school career and I bet one or more of those factors were a part of it.

  • It was either relevant i.e: you were sat there thinking I need this, this is going to help me, and I can use this or see where it might link into my life.
  • It was just really interesting and caused you to want to find out more.
  • It was naughty or cheeky or risk taking or challenging. It made you feel like you were working outside the normal rules.
  • Or it was a giggle. We now know through science that if you are having a good time you brain releases chemicals called endorphins which not only make you feel good but also re-enforce the learning connections in your brain. Basically having a laugh aids your memory.

Think about it, if you learn something using one of the above you’ll remember it, if you learn something using all four, you will never forget it!!


4 – Blocks


There are three major blocks that come into play when we attempt and explore practical thinking:

1 - Emotion - Sometimes we don’t actually think at all. We just hold on to an intuitive emotional response or a gut instinct. Although this can sometimes be a positive and rewarding experience it can also lead to our thinking becoming stilted, clouded and fixed. This way prejudice lies. Questionning where our thoughts come from and what is the evidence behind them helps here.

2 - Helplessness - Sometimes we simply don’t know how to think about something or we don’t know how to start. Clear instruction and time to share thinking are good ways to stop this barrier coming up.

3 - Confusion - We try and think about too much at once and then we end up thinking about everything at once which invariably leads to not being able to think about anything. Breaking tasks down into smaller chunks helps here or diving the thinking tasks up aming a group.


5 – Never accept “I don’t Know” as an answer


To challenge a student's thinking we have to know what he or she is thinking in the first place. If a student says 'I don’t know' it often means they are panicking and what they are actually saying is “Get out of my face, grown up”. There is a massive difference between not knowing and panicking as some of The Weakest Link's stupidest looking contestants will tell you.

Whenever a student says to me “I don’t know” I always reply with 'Imagine if you did know what you would say', or 'I don’t want to know what you know, I want to know what you think'. This is a really useful technique as it immediately takes the pressure of the student and allows them to respond imaginatively and safely.

The great thing with imagination/thinking is you can’t get it wrong. It’s just whatever’s in your head. It also re-enforces in the student’s brain that they do have a contribution to make and that 'I don’t know' more often than not is just a knee -erk reaction to pressure.


6– If you don’t know what you want how are you going to get it!!


Whenever I work with a group I will always ask them what they want to get from the session. In terms of thinking and memory, it’s incredibly important that students enter a lesson with some idea of what they want from it. Otherwise, and more often than not, they leave with something they didn’t want or, worse still, nothing at all.

Another useful technique to employ at the start of a session is to ask the students to have a quick chat with the person next to them and to come up with three things they would like from the session and one thing they definitely do not want.

For instance they may want a laugh, to learn something new and move around a bit, and they don’t want to be bored (these are the usual answers I get). At least now as a teacher you know what their expectations are and you can begin to deliver on them. This exercise quickly and effectively gets the students to think and focus on the lesson and learning and helps promote a collaborative atmosphere for everyone.


7 - Openers


It is always useful to have a locker full of creatibe and divergent thinking games and exercises which you can deploy whenever you feel the time is right. Below are three of my favourites:

- If that’s the answer what’s the question?

Have something on the board ready. Sometimes I will simply put up a number or write a strange phrase such as ‘Two nuns and an angry squirrel’ or ‘Quite a lot’ or ‘No’. It never ceases to amaze me how differently the student’s minds work and much hilarity normally ensues.

2 - Anagrammer

Simply place a long list of scrambled letters on the board. The challenge is for the students to find as many words within the list and then create a strange, surreal, cheeky or just plain long sentence using the words. Letters can only be used once unless they appear more than once.

- Well I never

Any relationship gets better the more we feed it by sharing ourselves. This activity allows students to share stories, facts and experiences with the class that they will have not heard before. Announce to the class that they have two minutes to come up with a fact, story, or experience that the class does not know about them, the students then feed this back to the class.


8 – Closers


Revision is not an option and so it is always best that the class get to review the lesson that has just taken place. This is not only essential for recall but can be tremendous fun. Below are three of my favourites:

1 - Tattoo review

The class are asked to think of one word that sums up the session and are then asked to write the word on the backs of their hands. Not only does this promote debate ( as people will ask why you have 'Memory' or 'Laughter' or 'Courage' or 'Pineapple' on the back of your hand), if the word is still there in a month, it also helps you identify who needs to wash more often!!

2 -  Initially Speaking

With five minutes to go before the end of the lesson, get the students to use their initials to come up with a catchy, useful phrase or set of key words from the lesson.

3 - 1-10

Ask the students to shout out a number between one and ten. Pick the first number you hear (say it's six). The students then have to make up a six-word sentence that tells you what they remember, enjoyed, and learned most about the lesson.


9 – 3 Before Me


This is a great technique which encourages students to be proactive in their thinking and learning as well as taking the pressure off you needing to be the font of all knowledge. Simply put, if a student gets stuck they misy try three different ways of getting u stuck before they come to you - it might be asking a friend, going online, asking the TA, looking in a book even!  

10 – Question everything/always give it back


I am always a little dubious of people who don’t ask questions. For me as an educationalist, questions are my key to playfulness, the ability to engage and collaborate with an audience. The more our audience tell us, the more we as the educators/facilitators have to play with. For me, there is no phrase more exciting, empowering and illuminating than:

'What do you think?'


Dave Keeling has been an Independent Thinking Associate for more years than any of us care to remember and he is still one of our most in-demand speakers. For more ideas like the ones above check out his ever-popular book Rocket Up your Class.

Rocket Up Your Class 2D 


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