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I’ve been meaning to write this post after hearing an idea at PBL World 2015 in the keynote by Ramsey Musallam, an amazing speaker and high school chemistry teacher. Now that PBL World 2016 is almost upon us, I thought I’d better get this done so I can be ready to blog about this year’s events and ideas.

Ramsey likened the learning cycle that happens in PBL to the classic “hero’s journey” first explained by mythologist Joseph Campbell in The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949). Campbell described the basic narrative pattern as:


A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.


Many myths and stories throughout human history, literature, and in movies follow this pattern, from Odysseus to Buddha to Jesus to fairy tales to Frodo Baggins to Neo in The Matrix and, of course, Star Wars. George Lucas read Campbell’s work and modeled the story of Luke Skywalker after it. Many an English teacher (as I did) shows clips from the Star Wars films to help students make meaning of classic stories in literature. The hero’s journey model can also help with understanding the psychological “journey” taken by adolescents as they enter adulthood.

I thought – and several colleagues agreed at the time – that Ramsey’s insight was brilliant, so I've run with it and expanded the metaphor. Here are the basic steps Luke Skywalker followed, matched with what a student undergoes in a project.

Ok, that’s a PBL + Star Wars geek-out, but a pretty cool idea, eh? (Too bad I couldn’t post this on May the Fourth…)

If you’re a teacher who’s new to PBL, seeing a project as a hero’s journey might help you get through the first couple of projects. Because even if it sometimes feels like you’re entering the abyss, realize that it’s part of the journey – and your students will eventually return as heroes.

PBL World 2016 is June 13-17. I’ll be blogging from the event every day, and we'll be live-streaming keynote speakers and Getting Smart will be hosting Google Hangouts. I’m sure there will be lots of wisdom (like Ramsey’s) to share, so if you aren’t attending, find out about it here!


Do you have questions or comments about how the Hero’s Journey compares with PBL? Please enter them below.