What’s so bad about Blackadder?


What's so bad about Blackadder in history lessons? What's so bad about a little laughter in the classroom? Psychologist Karen Sullivan says it can actually have a positive impact on student outcomes.

I am beginning to suspect that if Mr Gove gets his way, the classroom will become a deeply boring, factory-chicken sort of affair. History, we are now told, should be taught with a straight face and avoid the “left-wing myths that belittle Britain” and “denigrate patriotism”. The First World War was serious stuff and should be portrayed as such. Mr Gove appears to be lacking something of the classic British sense of humour on this occasion; what’s more, if you ask me, he’s missing a trick.

First and foremost, so what if Blackadder is not strictly accurate? It’s funny, it’s certainly an introduction to the subject of the First World War (and more), and it provides enormous scope for discussion. As a tool it can be used to engage students and also offer a point of comparison. Does art mimic life? What is the reality? 

How do television programmes like this portray a momentous period of history and how can they help to ease collective suffering by trivialising trauma? The possibilities are endless.

Second, and perhaps most importantly, Blackadder and the like introduce humour to the classroom, and the benefits of this cannot be underestimated. A recent review looked at 40 years of research into the role of humour and education, with some tantalising results. 

Studies have found that humour builds class cohesion, and encourages a positive response between class members. It reduces stress levels, and no fewer than five studies have found positive connections between humour and higher student evaluations. Interestingly, even the inclusion of humour in exams does not have an impact on scores, so is unlikely to damage educational outcomes.

The study concluded that educators should share funny cartoons, comics or videos, and that this leads to positive perceptions of the instructor and the classroom experience as a whole. Humour can help students to remember material and to illustrate concepts. It also positively affects attention and interest levels, keeping students engaged with course material. 

Teachers need freedom with which to explore their subjects and make them appealing and memorable. Using elements of contemporary culture – however “inaccurate” they may be – is a part of this. I cannot imagine that there is any teacher in the land who relies entirely upon Blackadder to teach the First World War. Nor would any of them suggest that it should be perceived as an accurate representation. 

Instead, it should be valued for what it is – a “take” on history, an injection of humour that, quite apart from anything else, goes a long way towards illustrating how the British cope with trauma. Above all, inaccurate accounts are a wonderful way for children to learn the facts, as they are forced to contrast and compare, call upon high-level cognitive resources, and problem-solve.

Blackadder is fiction, and thus provides a springboard for further discussion about the role of fiction and the portrayal of truth – thus developing a critical sensibility about the myths that have abounded throughout history and into the present day. Watching a satire doesn’t make us unpatriotic or nurture mythology; it brings a war to life through a host of unforgettable characters and offers us a visual exploration of the nature of patriotism – and its opposite. I rather doubt that students will be compelled to adhere to the views expressed by this particular group of characters.

I see a lot there to discuss, and lots of ways to ensure that the laughter this programme will produce reaps benefits in both the short and long term. Removing the fun from the classroom will do nothing other than drive the students out.

  • Karen Sullivan is a best-selling author, psychologist and childcare expert. Email kesullivan@aol.com


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