The Journey as a Learning Schema

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How the Hero’s Journey Aids Learning

by Reg Harris

One of the most important models for learning to emerge in recent decades is schema theory. Schema theory proposes that humans process experience by encoding it in mental structures called schemas. Schemas are generic, abstract frameworks that do not so much store the details of experience, but help us organize those details to make experience coherent and meaningful. Because of their critical role in remembering information, building meaning, and shaping our life views, schemas― and the hero’s journey schema in particular―offer teachers a valuable instructional tool.

Schemas and Learning

In schema theory, acquiring, modifying and deepening schemas are the essence of growth and learning. With experience, our schemas become more sophisticated. They develop webs of relationships both internally, between their parts, and externally, with other schemas. Schema theory suggests that this development occurs in three ways.

1. When feedback from our engagement with life meshes with our existing schemas, those schemas deepen with the elaboration.

2. When new information challenges existing schema, we can adapt our schema to accommodate the new information, broadening the schema’s potential applications.

3. When we face entirely new situations, for which we have no relevant schemas, we can build new schemas which we can then use for similar situations in the future.

This process of enriching, adjusting and constructing is, in schema theory, the basis for growth and learning. It is also the existential process described by the hero’s journey.

The journey schema’s central role in our lives makes it a valuable resource for teachers. By the time children start school, they have experienced the basic journey process both personally and through the stories they’ve encountered. This familiarity gives teachers a starting point, a schema that can be activated and elaborated with formal instruction on the journey. Then, when students have mastered the journey’s stages and relationships, they will have a tool for using what they do know to understand what they don’t know. In addition, because schemas help us organize, store and use memories, the journey schema will help students remember stories more thoroughly and recall details more accurately. Finally, the journey’s stages contain archetypal relationships (i.e., relationships in a symbolic, generic form). By understanding these relationships and applying them to the stories they study, students can use the journey schema as an aid to interpretation, inference and analysis.

Using the Journey Schema in the Classroom

Schema theory has important implications in the classroom. It suggests that much of our teaching is mentoring students through the task of enriching, adapting or building schemas. The hero’s journey can be a very powerful and flexible aid in this process. As an instructional framework, the journey schema can guide us in planning lessons, creating materials (i.e., advance and graphic organizers), designing writing assignments, organizing individual and class projects, and preparing evaluations. More importantly, with the journey at the center of planning, all our materials will be coherent and consistent. We will be building on a common theme with a common vocabulary and a common set of understandings. What’s more, because the journey process is everywhere in life, we will be teaching a schema that has virtually universal applications.

With the hero’s journey as their foundation schema, our students can better understand, interpret, and analyze the literature they study. They can use the journey’s vocabulary and generic structure as guides for discussion and writing. They can use the relationships within the pattern as points of comparison between different pieces of literature. Finally, they can use the journey schema as a bridge to connect the themes and lessons in literature to the experiences and struggles in their lives.

Once they make that leap, from literary themes to real-life possibilities, our students will discover that the stories they read can enrich the stories they live. Literature and film can awaken potentials for growth and self-discovery in their own journeys. That is the real value of teaching the journey as a learning schema.

Review: Four Reasons to Teach the Journey

REASON ONE:The Heroic Journey provides a scaffolding or framework to improve comprehension and understanding.

– The Journey framework gives students a powerful, narrative framework with which they can understand virtually any story (literature, film and their own lives).

– The Journey framework provides “ready-made” connections between story elements that can help students assimilate, process and use the new information.

– The Journey framework provides all of the elements of a story so that it can be used to fill in gaps in a new story, aiding comprehension and understanding.

– The Journey framework provides a virtually limitless potential for creating materials to activate, broaden or deepen current schemata (i.e., advance and graphic organizers) and a template to help students build new schema.

REASON TWO: The Heroic Journey can serve as a bridge to help students use what they do know to understand what they don’t know.

– The Journey can help students transfer information from a known situation to a new situation (i.e., from stories they know to stories or life experiences that are new).

– The Journey can provide students with a framework of understanding that can guide their actions in a new situation, enabling them to respond more quickly, effectively and creatively.

– The Journey creates bridge for connecting the themes and lessons of literature to the students’ own lives, opening new ways of seeing and being.

REASON THREE: The Heroic Journey schema can boost memory and recall.

– The Journey provides a framework to which students can attach the details of the new story.

– The Journey provides the cues to help students recall details they have stored.

– The Journey provides a framework to help students “chunk” new information so that it can be stored and remembered more effectively.

REASON FOUR: The Journey schema can boost students’ performance on many processes related to reading and analyzing literature.

– The Journey provides a framework for comparing or contrasting elements within a story or across different stories.

– The Journey provides a framework for writing about characters, the challenges they face in the story and their motivations for action.

– The Journey provides a wealth of potential topics for analysis and discussion as each stage contains its own tasks, characteristics, and dangers.

Copyright © 2015 by Reg Harris. All rights reserved. Apart from properly cited quotes and short excerpts, no part of this article can be copied or used in any form without written permission from the author. For permission to use, please contact me.