June 2, 2022

What can we learn about teaching from John Oliver?

Written by Noah Ringler, PFF Fellow and Doctoral Student, Psychology. Noah’s research focuses on mindfulness, moral development and wisdom.

I have always marveled at people who were able to communicate clearly.  

I suspect this quality has stood out to me because I was long under the impression that I did not like school, which I directly associated with learning. I spent nearly all of high school believing that I disliked school. However, in my senior year of high school, I had a teacher who flipped my preconceived notions about what education is and what it could be. From there on, I understood that I loved learning but rarely enjoyed school. 

The obvious question that comes to mind is, why did I have such a drastic distinction? After all, didn’t we spend our time in school learning? If I loved learning, wouldn’t I love school? The obvious retort is that I did not enjoy how the content was being presented and as we know, how you present material matters. 

I’m struck by how well Last Week Tonight with John Oliver promotes learning in short periods of time. Hoping to become a better lecturer, I wanted to analyze what he was doing, which seemed formulaic, and share it with others. It seemed to me that his structure captures something important about learning. After reviewing several episodes, I found his segments are broken up into two distinct pieces: 1) what is the problem? And 2) What can we do about it? 

In the first portion of the segment, John Oliver concisely describes what the problem is and its real-world impact. Beyond explaining the issue, Oliver consistently provides his audience with real-world examples illustrating his point, which grounds the topic in reality and explains why this topic matters. Furthermore, Oliver and his team regularly incorporate visuals and media clips that assist in elevating the point he is trying to make. Lastly, the show masterfully mixes education and humor to assist in engagement. Oliver and his team seem to focus 60% of their time on amusement and the other 40% presenting their argument (Ivan, 2016). The mix of humor and direct information enhances engagement and achievement learning outcomes.   

While the description of the problem often takes up the majority of the segment, Oliver’s segments consistently end by answering the question, “what can we do about it.” Once again, Oliver grounds the issue to reality and provides a conclusion to the topic at hand by providing clear, actionable next steps. 

What lessons can we take about teaching from John Oliver and his team? First, unsurprisingly, humor can significantly enhance student engagement. While some of us are better able to incorporate humor into our lectures, we should try to break up the seriousness of our lectures one way or another.  

Second, rather than discussing topics abstractly, can you find specific examples that illustrate the point you are trying to make? By grounding these topics in reality, we can greatly enhance students understanding of topics. We are no longer teaching something abstract and irrelevant to our lives, but we discuss something with real-world implications.  

Third, Oliver and his team utilize various methods to describe the topic they are discussing: lecture, visuals, and media clips. Similar to Universal Design of Learning, Oliver uses various methods to illustrate his point and enhance the learning of his audience.  

Lastly, I think one of the biggest takeaways from the show is to end our lessons with concrete takeaways regarding our lesson. How can we implement what we learned today in our lives? What actionable next steps can I provide you with as you walk out of the classroom? By ending our lessons with a concrete description of what this topic means and how to implement these lessons into our lives, we emphasize the value of the lessons and, hopefully, bring credibility to our classroom.  

John Oliver and his team do an excellent job in their show. I have seen his format replicated amongst other political satires, and for a good reason. Last Week Tonight with John Oliver highlights some effective ways to enhance learning and engagements simultaneously and provides educators with some tips for enhancing our teaching practices.    

Ivan, D. (2016, July 8). John Oliver’s Secret to Well-argued Presentations: Argument Wells. www.linkedin.com. https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/john-olivers-secret-well-argued-presentations-argument-drew-ivan/