Using the Hero’s Journey to teach everything.

The hero’s journey is a well known, and well used narrative structure that most people enjoy and experience though entertainment media. They might not be directly aware of it, but the progression is embedded in our culture.

This circle is useful in thinking about ‘design thinking’ or ‘project based learning’ as both require a narrative which students are interested in. This cycle has somewhat been replicated in game design, but as we know, games which attempted to simply remediate it into game-form tended to suck. Lucas Arts managed to produce numerous terrible games by trying apply film methods and structures … and it’s only recently – that Star Wars has become a game that fits with gamer-interests and preferences.

This cycle can be deployed into the classroom. I call them ‘episodes’ because learning is episodic, so entertainment media. I frame things in 4 episodes plus something that goes on at the end around the social-graph. I don’t like ‘presentations’ they are boring and rarely have access to the audience they need to make them feel important.

I’ll call them stages … just because more people recognise the term … but an ‘episode’ comes with it’s own archetypes (which is too hard to explain here). I’ll keep to ‘stages’ in order to make it easier to describe.

The first stage involves getting students motivated and interested, getting access to the resources and other elements needed to run the project and providing the threshold information (processes, content) that enable the enquirer to begin the challenge.

Assume most have absolutely no idea what you’re on about and a few might know one thing about it. Teachers tend to over-rate the general working knowledge of students when they want to “go PBL” because it feels safer to believe the kids are more savvy  then they might really be. It’s a halo-effect about teacher belief about how they are improving their practice … which releases those sweet-brain chemicals of confidence. The truth is that the kids many have zero clue about the topic or what you’re trying to do.

The first stage, which might take up 70% of your total time is to lay down that concrete foundation. Chill out, and make the challenge stage smaller if you need to … but don’t rush into it. I see this with STEM – clearly these are TEACHER projects, where the teacher is so invested in their own success and enjoyment, they become over-guided and dull. In the past, we learned that to teach someone how to use a computer, the first law was to get your hand off their mouse.

My point is that the first stage is all about the KNOW and not (as is popularly said) the NEED TO KNOWS. You get what I’m saying here? If so, we can now talk about the challenge phase (the part the kids love even more if they know something about the topic from stage 1).

The challenge is really important and I’ve seen plenty of teachers (PBL) leave this until the end – when in fact it’s too late. The challenge is also the temptation for students. If the projects appears dull, boring or unfathomable at the start and that feeling isn’t quickly addressed (by the teacher), students will log-off and just push they own happiness wagon. They will remain more interested in ticking boxes and waiting for it all to end that re-engaging with it. This usually invokes teacher threats and punitive language to re-start the process.

The challenge is the second step. It might take an hour, thirty minutes or weeks. It should be foggy and require research, critical thinking, creativity and communication. It probably won’t work out that well. Students might start asking “is this good enough” because they know the answer … and are really saying … wow, this was harder than we thought, there are things we still don’t know, skills we don’t have and we’re not sure if we want to invest our time in this – or maybe push out happiness wagon.

Stage three comes next, but by this time, each student will be in a different frame of mind about it. Variations in motivation, opinion and effort are presenting challenges for the group. This is where the teacher provides the revelation (if they didn’t find it). This is the essential reboot that at least half your students need – to put things in context, to ditch the brain-junk and provide a pathway forward. They need to revisit that they have done so far – to fix it, remix it, re-evaluate it, but not abandon it. What teachers provide here are the tools needed to remedy gaps and issues, but not to do it for them, Think how Ben encourages Luke, but is dead at the time – a fuzzy voice in his head – but solid advice.1459886536608.png

Stage four is all about critical thinking and talking about improvements and issues. Forget this idea that a slick end product is a sign of success. Sure, showing off this stuff at teachmeets and conferences looks cool, but a really good end product is at best 50% awesome and a pile of junk and un-resolved and abandoned pieces. If you focus on the ‘great end product’ you also discourage MOST kids from taking risks and mistakes. All that happens is the kids with the most agency dominate and the other kids hide their work or see it as unworthy. Too many PBL teachers get this wrong. PBL is group work, but it’s the labour of each person – successful or not – that matters. So don’t be in a rush to write that blog post about how brilliant your project was … blah blah … pay more attention to the scraps of paper on the floor – or what they threw in the bin. That’s where the atonement lies. I don’t hear the pearly king and queens of PBL talking about this much – so I figure I’d point it out.

The final stage is the return. This is where the products – great though crap are turned back into concrete items. Wrong facts are corrected (by the teacher) and suggestions for improvements can be made. Time will dictate what action can be taken here – usually not much – but the end point is for students to compare the start and end of the journey – identifying three or four key moments where they felt it was going well, badly etc.,

Kids know what quality products look like. For kids in rich schools – they probably have flashy materials to work with. Many more kids have ‘cardboard arcades’ with duct tape and scavenged plastics etc. Don’t be fooled by shiny things … a great game based, or project based learning cycle isn’t locked stepped to the BIE model or zombie-use of terms such as “critical friends”.

For me, the stages of development create temporary “birds of a feather” groups. Have a look around … why is Jenny now talking to Julian? They never talk, they are in different peer groups? … why is John sitting on his own? … it’s all about observation … not diagrams, templates and technology – this is why I think the SOLO taxonomy works so well within EACH stage of this four step process … you can repeat the same beat over and over until everyone catches on.

Finally, you can present things. However, I suggest using “Stand-ups” instead. Just ping groups and ask them to create a quick 60 second thesis of what they are doing – again, leaving things to the end is too late. A presentation isn’t the be all and end all. In fact I see it more like the rolling credits – most people get up and leave – where as a stand-up is that extra-clip, right at the end that only the insiders know about.

So there ya go … think about what you’re hearing … and then think about the narratives, loops and expertise of kids … which ‘model’ makes more sense – the one they know best.