The Hero's Journey

Projects as a Story-Line

Stories, especially a Hero’s Journey, have a long and successful track record of creating engaging stories, movies, and, more recently, captivating ad campaigns for marketers and business executives. For several reasons, I also argue that the Hero’s Journey is very helpful in a learning context - especially if the students themselves are the authors of the story.

First of all, stories allow students a variety of ways to engage with curriculum goals. I generally like to have students create a story related to the unit, giving them just enough guidelines to ensure a good challenge, while still clearly seeing if they have accomplished the goal, all without falling back on the teacher’s opinion.

To do this, I start with a statement For example, when creating a unit on biology and robotics, the goal was to have the students create a robot that would keep their plants alive over a two week vacation. If the robot fails, the garden dies. Or in a boat design / physics class, students were to design a boat that met at least one of three prescribed qualities and could survive at least one of three prescribed nautical challenges.

The second step is to have the students define a “future” or “imaginary” persona and a goal or reason that this persona is doing the project. I have them document their persona, since at the end of the project, they will present their story using that persona. Students are allowed to adjust their persona and goal as they progress.

Once students have chosen a persona, goal and purpose, they start the actual work on their project. At this point, most students are quite engaged since they have picked some aspect of the project that interests them and have found a way that the project and materials relate to their own world. By developing a purpose in the context of the story, they are more likely to be successful when they encounter the “challenge.”

I am careful to design the projects so that there is no perfect solution and the projects represent a significant challenge. It is important that the students need to think through and explore several aspects of the topic to understand, in their opinion, the best way forward. Of course, it is important to make the whole endeavor doable. Like a good game, it starts off easy and gets progressively harder, building skills as the game - the story - progress. It helps to keep the students focused on the next immediate doable aspect of the project, while keeping an eye on moving toward their goal.

As the project gets more challenging and students are working toward the “impossible” perfection they seem to desire, it is important to be patient and supportive. When students struggle, they are learning. When they have to make difficult compromises to best arrive at their goal, or an acceptable variation of the goal, they are learning. Messy is how learning is.

The best way I have found to help the students, in addition to observing and guiding them during class, is to regularly review student progress with them, reflecting together on their progress. What about their work is effective? What could they try to be even more effective? What, indeed, does effective mean - to them?

The last step is to have the students present their purpose, personas, goal, and project. In short, their heroic journey.

To quickly compare the above project flow to an Agile process, including the kickoff, consider these steps:

  • Kickoff meeting (define the goals and roles)
  • Daily Standups & other Scrum activities
  • External Scrum demo & Review of feedback
  • Sprint Retrospective (reflecting on what can be even better)

Originally published at


Invoke/Involve Stories

Allow students to dream a future and work with difficulties.

  • Common Structure of the Greatest Communicators - A TEDxEast talk by Nancy Duarte. Explores making the status quo unappealing and draw them forward to the future of what can be, drawing people in and using resistance to move forward.
  • The Clues to a Great Story - shares what he knows about storytelling – starting at the end and working back to the beginning. A TED talk by Andrew Stanton, the writer behind “Toy Story” and “Wall-E” and “John Carter.” Contains graphic language.
  • The magical science of storytelling - a TEDxStockholm by David JP Phillips. David JP Phillips shares key neurological findings on storytelling and with the help of his own stories, induces in us the release of four neurotransmitters of his choice.
Bill Tihen
Bill Tihen
Educator and Technologist

Developer, Educator and very curious.