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The Journey and Brain-Based Teaching
by Reg Harris
(2015 NOTE: I wrote this article in 2001, but even though it is a bit dated, current research in neuroscience confirms the article’s argument and general concepts.)
The Power of the Journey Schema
I have been teaching the hero’s journey pattern as a foundation to study literature and film since 1986. I have seen it work wonders, especially with students who tend to see little relevance between a purely academic approach to literature and what they are experiencing in their “real” lives. The journey pattern has a remarkable power make literature relevant by giving a students a point of comparison between the literature they study and the lives they live.
Once students understand the journey pattern and the processes within it, they can—sometimes with a little help from the teacher—see connections between the challenges faced by fictional characters and the challenges they face in their own lives. They can transfer the themes and lessons they take from literature to understanding and decision-making in their own adventures. In short, the journeys they study become aids for the journeys they live.
The Brain and the Journey
In 1997, 22 years after I began using the hero’s journey and 11 years after I began to study it, I learned the biological/neurological reason that the hero’s journey is such a powerful teaching and learning tool. Our school had an in-service presentation by Pat Wolfe, a specialist in brain-research and its implications for teaching and learning. Wolfe explained that brain researchers have made important discoveries in how memory works and how the brain processes information. The implications of this research suggest teaching techniques which are more compatible with how we learn.
During that meeting, I realized that several of the teaching techniques suggested by brain research meshed extremely well with the Hero’s Journey approach to literature.
Implications of Brain-based research
Research tells us that the information we learn passes through our brain’s limbic system, the center of our emotion and the controller of survival functions (i.e., the “fight-or-flight” response). As a result, our learning process is geared toward survival and is driven by emotion. Information which is not important emotionally to us never makes it through to the long-term memory.
According to Robert Sylwester, author of A Celebration of Neurons: An Educator’s Guide to the Human Brain (1995),
We have deeply embedded, innate systems that cull out of the environment those things that are either dangerous or helpful to us….Emotion drives attention, and attention drives learning…our attentional system determines what is important, and you never remember anything if it’s not important.
This brings us to the first implication brain-based research has for our teaching: students must see the importance of what we are trying to teach them, and the importance of information is determined by the emotion it carries. Material cannot be remembered unless it has emotional content.
A second discovery is that we learn best when we can hook new information to something which we already know. Our existing informational frameworks are called “schema.” According to Wolfe (2001),
A schema provides a structure or guide for understanding. In order to comprehend, we select a schema that seems appropriate and fill in the missing information. Without the appropriate schema, trying to understand a story, textbook, or classroom lesson is like trying to find your way through a new town without a map.
A third discovery is that our brains have difficulty processing random, unrelated bits of information. We learn best in “clumps” of related information. This suggests that a “theme-based” approach to teaching is more effective than an approach which teaches isolated bits of knowledge.
Closely related to “clumping” is a fourth concept: the brain learns best when it can “chunk” information. Wolfe describes a chunk as , “any coherent group of items of information that we can remember as if it were a single item. A word is a chunk of letters, remembered as easily as a single letter (but carrying much more information).” The implication here is that if we group or organize information into meaningful chunks (such as a “journey” containing a series of events), that information can be learned more quickly and effectively.
So how does the Hero’s Journey pattern fit into all of this? Let’s look at each of these four points individually.
Relevance and emotion
If students are to see the importance of what we are trying to teach them and learn it thoroughly, they must feel an emotional involvement in the material. Writes Wolfe, “Educators need to recognize the power of emotion to increase retention, and plan classroom instruction accordingly.”
Perhaps nothing is more emotional (thus important) to students than what is happening in their own lives. They become deeply involved in material which has direct applicability to what they are experiencing. The Hero’s Journey has this impact. When students study it, they realize that the pattern applies to their own lives as much as to literature. As one of my ninth graders wrote in 2000,
The Hero’s Journey is way of guidance [sic] and helps us in our lives. For me, the Hero’s Journey has opened my eyes . . . showed me how we face our fears . . .made me look at things in a whole new perspective. . . It will help me in the future by pointing me in the right direction in life.
Creating and using schema
We learn best when we can hook new information to something which we already know, a schema.
A “schema” is a framework of knowledge or information which the student already knows and understands. It’s worth repeating Pat Wolfe’s words here because she could easily have been describing the Hero’s Journey pattern: “A schema provides a structure or guide for understanding…Without the appropriate schema, trying to understand a story, textbook, or classroom lesson is like trying to find your way through a new town without a map.”
As schema, the hero’s journey pattern works in two ways. First, students come to us with many years of life experience. They have been called to adventures, faced challenges, and grown from what they have experienced. Although they have never defined it, they already know the hero’s journey pattern because they are living it.
They also “study” the journey pattern constantly in the stories they read, the films they watch and even in the stories they tell each other and themselves. So, the schema for understanding the journey is already in their brains. All we do is help them understand a pattern they already know. Once learned, journey pattern itself becomes a schema which students can use to understand and apply what the literature and film they will study in the future.
A “theme-based”approach to teaching is more effective than an approach which teaches isolated bits of knowledge.
Teaching the hero’s journey is, essentially, teaching the theme of human change and growth. This is a theme that students know well, so they can relate to it quickly on a profound level.
Once the students understand the processes and themes innate in the journey pattern, they will see them in literature and film. As a result, they will better remember story details because they have the journey schema as a scaffolding for memory. They will also understand how plot and conflict are important to the character’s transformation because these elements are part of a unified theme. Students also see the “shadow” images of these themes. They will see that when characters reject the call to grow, change and adapt, those characters will experience bitterness, stagnation and, to use Joseph Campbell’s description, spiritual “death.”
In addition, students who understand the themes presented in the Hero’s Journey interpret literature, film and television with more understanding and discernment. One student wrote,
It was cool to watch a movie that I’ve seen a hundred times and then watch after I learned about the hero’s journey in a totally different light. It’s cool to look at characters and just automatically tell if they have gone through the hero’s journey. I think it has helped me understand everything, including life, a whole lot better.
Chunking Information for Learning
We must group information into meaningful chunks for students to learn it effectively. Chunking refers to combining smaller bits of information into a coherent group so that we can remember the material as if it were a single item that has some kind of meaning.
For example, if I asked you to memorize quickly the random letters “s, h, r, e, j, y, r, n, e, u, o and r,” you almost certainly couldn’t do it. However, if I ask you to remember “hero’s journey,” you could do that easily. They are the same letters, but organized into meaningful chunks. By remember the chunk, we remember the letters.
I’ve found that students who understand the hero’s journey pattern naturally “chunk” information automatically. The pattern of the journey provides a heuristic through which they can effectively unite the specific details of plot, character, setting and conflict. As a result, they can remember material more easily and thoroughly.
Teaching the hero’s journey pattern as a basis for studying literature and film meets the goals of brain-based learning. It is relevant and emotional, it builds on existing schema and then becomes a schema itself for future study, and it helps students “clump” and “chunk” the details of even the most complex piece of literature.
For me, however, perhaps the most important way the hero’s journey fulfills the goals of brain-based learning is that it makes literature authentic by making it relevant to “real life.” Students discover that literature is important. They begin to understand how a character faces a journey, and they can relate that understanding to the experiences in their own lives. As one of my ninth graders expressed the idea,
From the first day we learned it, every time I picked up a book I would start seeing it. Every time I saw a movie, I could find it (yes, even in the Simpsons). …It even relates to our own lives. I can find many hero’s journeys in our lives.
Sylwester, R. (1995). A Celebration of neurons: An educator’s guide to the human brain. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
Wolfe, P. (2001). Brain matters: Translating research into classroom practice. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
Copyright © 2001 by Reg Harris. All rights reserved. Updated: June 2015. This article may not be copied in whole or in part without the expressed written permission of the author. Contact me for permission. Please respect my copyright.