Hero’s Journey as a Unit Design Structure

If you stop to think about it teachers really are building the opportunity for students to go through their own Heroic Journey. And if we try to formalize our thinking around building this journey we can make a class experience (literally) epic!

I still subscribe to the notion that good unit design should begin with the end in mind. I’m not sure if this “backwards design model” is outdated in current reform ideas but it does help to clarify the goals of a lesson or unit. Backward design is also used in game design. In the Vox interview linked to in my post on Miyamoto, the man often called the father of modern video games, the process he deacribes is similar to the educational theory. The skills taught theoughtout a level (how to jump, stomp on a mushroom guy, etc…) Are essential and the boss at the end of a level is designed to test the skill acquisition. Video games, at least the role playing games I grew up with, used this design pattern typically within the Hero’s Journey narratove structure. My favorite game in high school was Final Fantasy 7. The player starts as Coud Strife a low level eco-terrorist (yeah, the 90s were weird) but a nobody in his ordinary world. Through the narratove he receives the call, finds his mentor (Aerith) and is tranrsported into a new mystical and magical world where he begins the road of trials toward the Final Ordeal against Sephiroth – very nearly Lucifer himself in the finale. I believe that the classroom is similar to a role playing game in the past. Students enter class as weak versions of their classroom selves having demonstrated no skills or knowledge and must grow through challenges and ordeals until they finally defeat the big boss (or bosses). With this in mind, the use of narrative not only as a storytelling device, but as a unit planning device makes a lot of sense.

Just a refresher on the quick version on the Hero’s Journey:

  1. Call to Adventure/Accepting the Call 
  2. Crossing the Threshold/Entering the Unknown
  3. Supernatural Aid/Meeting the Mentor
  4. The Road of Trials
  5. Approach to the Innermost Cave 
  6. Final Ordeal/Final Test/ Final Boss
  7. Reward (seizing the sword) and Journey Home
  8. The Return Home
  9. The Sequel

Within this structure, to start a unit begin with the end in mind.  What is the intended “Final Ordeal”? What are the skills and content that the student must know to do critical damage in this Final Showdown? In video game terms this might be the “Big Boss Fight”. For example, to defeat the first end level Bowzer in Super Mario Brothers the player has to know how to successfully time Mario’s Jumps. A better example might be in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone Harry, Ron, and Hermione have to know about Fluffy theb3 headed Dog, Devils Root, Wizards Chess, and Broom Flying. 

After determining the final skills objective then we can think about the steps leading to that Ultimate Challenge. Begin with determining what the “Ordinary World” means for the student population. A Hero begins their Journey as a normal but odd or searching member of the community. Determine where the students are starting the Journey and, if possible, personalize the starting points of the students. Once you have enough data (pretests, surveys, formative assessment, etc…) it is time to plan the Road of Trials.

In thenarratove structure, the Road of Trials phase is meant to build the burgeoning Hero’s strength through a series of combats and challenges. In the Harry Potter example we can see Harry join the Quiditch team which hones his broom skills, Hermoine sees every class (including herbology) as a challenge, and Ron learns Wizard Chess. Their friendship with Hagrid and helping him in the woods gives them the key to getting past Fluffy to begin the Final Ordeal. In this phase consider the steps that the students (players) will need to take in order to grow strong enough to defeat the “Boss” of the unit’s final ordeal. If we are thinking in the terms of a video game, this road might be the smaller “fights” that hone the skills our Heroes will need in the final showdown. In the Mega Man games each new level finds the Mega Man Hero with a new weapon and plenty of new baddies in the way to improve skill with the upgrade. 

When the road is organized, the minor conflicts arranged, and the Final Ordeal in place, their are two important elements left to consider. The first is the Call to Action and Meeting the Mentor phases that move the Hero from the “ordinary world” to the new heroic quest. How will this new journey be introduced and how will students be able to make meaningful choices in accepting the call? A key foundation of games are that they are voluntary. Unlike the narrative where we know the Hero will accept the call (neo will always take the red pill no matter how many times we restart the movie) in a game and in our classrooms we need to give students an actual choice. Perhaps the class narrative is branched like a choose your own adventure or different students can develop a product of their own choice but it is the acceptance of the call that truly engages them on the road of trials. Then consider who the Mentor will be and how they will support the novice heroes. In all likelihood this will be the teacher, but what role will be played and what scaffolds can we envision the students needing on the road of trials? 

The second Hero’s Journey phase prior to the Final Ordeal is the “Innermost Cave“. This is the moment of reflection prior to the big boss fight where the Hero gathers strength and reviews all of the skills learned on the road. I’m a bit of a nerd so let’s call this the “shooting wamprats” phase. In Star Wars: A New Hope Luke finally makes it to the Rebels after escaping the Death Star and is getting briefed on how to destroy the Death Star (the Final Ordeal) and a fellow X-Wing pilot claims the size of the exhaust port is too small. Luke fires back that the used to target wamprats back home that weren’t much bigger than the exhaust port – it is the Call before the storm and a time to remind our hero’s that they have the necessary skills to succeed. Consider how the students review the material and their skills prior to the final conflict.

So phases 1-6 have been completed. The unit has been started, the trials have been cleared and the Final Ordeal overcome. Victory! …

…. But Wait! We now need to Sieze The Sword and Journey Home! What is the reward that the student will receive after defeating the final boss? In a video game, defeating a level boss will sometimes provide the player with a tool needed to be successful in the next level. From Dan Bronzite:

The Reward may come in many forms: an object of great importance or power, a secret, greater knowledge or insight, or even reconciliation with a loved one or ally.

Obviously the classroom reward the students all obtain is greater insight and knowledge. That will be an awesome “sword” for or “Achiever Types” but we need to think about all types. My first thought on them is is Badging and my second is Power cards. 

The final phase is The Journey Home. After the battle is done it is impkrtant to reflect and note what has been accomplished. Celebrate and reset for the next quest! Which brings is to The Sequel.

I’m cheating on this last one a bit, but every good Heroic Journey has a sequel these daysm – 7 Harry Potter booms, 3 Hunger Games, an endless series of Marvel movies. This is more of a comment on long term planning. If we can creating a meta arc for the semester or year long course we can think of these unit structures as “Seasons” or “chapters” in a larger Heroic Journey. After all in the end shouldn’t we be able to see the epic progress students have made throughout their time in our class?

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1 Comment

  1. This post got me thinking so much about my own game development. As I read and reread, ideas emerged at such a pace, I had to stop and take notes. Thank you for this instructional and inspirational post.

    Like

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