The Hero’s Journey has been a mainstay in entertainment ever since George Lucas picked Joseph Campbell’s brain about his study of mythology and then transformed the Journey into Star Wars.

The entertainment business has been capitalizing on the Hero’s Journey for decades. Why hasn’t education boarded the train yet?

That’s a question Trevor Muir poses in The Epic Classroom.

Muir describes how he and other teachers have framed their project-based units of learning to loosely follow the Hero’s Journey.

The Old School Journey

Sadly, most of my own K-12 learning — and more of my own teaching units than I care to admit — follow a very sad, very dull journey.

First, teachers introduced the unit. This usually entailed the words, “We’re starting a new chapter today in our textbook.” Followed by notes, and if we were lucky, a — wait for it — video!

Notes and lectures led us up a mundane path of (not so) rising action to the climax: A TEST! Because nothing excites an adolescent so much as answering multiple choice questions on a beautiful 70 degree day.

Finally, the denouement: The tests are handed back! Questions are gone over. Then tests are generally turned back in so that future students don’t know what’s on them.

Making Learning Truly Epic

Trevor Muir’s The Epic Classroom challenges teachers to rethink about units of teaching by ramping up the essential points in the Hero’s Journey and making students excited for the projects that await them. In the book, Muir describes how he finds a theme in each unit and connects it to a potential service project in his city. He doesn’t necessarily have the entire project planned; he allows the students to do some of the planning footwork with him.

A new unit starts with the inciting event. For Muir, it’s often a guest speaker, but if we harken back to Dave Burgess’ classic Teach Like a Pirate, teachers can find plenty of other ways to hook a class. A quick field trip, either literal or virtual; a powerful game or role-playing activity; a mystery for students to solve — an inciting event needs to lure students down the rabbit hole of the unit.

The biggest component of any novel or movie is the rising action, and during that rising action, we want conflict — some twists and turns that we don’t see coming. If we see them coming, that’s when we put the book down or flip off the movie. Same goes with our units. Structure is important, but too much predictability and students disengage. Sometimes we need to flip the structure of the class, use a new app, or better yet: Ask students for what’s getting dull in our classroom and how that can be spiced up!

Then comes the all important climax. I hate to admit how often in my career that the climax has been…a test. My claim here is not to call for complete test elimination (though I advocate for as few as possible), but instead to create a climax that’s important for the students. Trevor Muir’s unit climaxes are the presentation of his students’ projects to authentic audiences. The word authentic is important. We can’t continue to isolate ourselves inside of our protective classroom walls. If we want students to feel like heroes, like they accomplished something worthwhile, it needs to be promoted outside of school.

Finally, the denouement. The hero returns to his old world, except it’s not quite the same because the hero isn’t the same. What discussion, reflection, celebration can we plan for our students to wrap up a unit of learning? How can they share their thoughts with their colleagues? A unit needs to end with more than passing back the test; like a movie or a book, we need to clearly end a unit with our students, allow them to give final takeaways, and celebrate what they’ve accomplished.

We as humans love story. The structure is innately built into us, and we learn better through narrative and purpose. By tweaking units with Trevor Muir’s ideas, we can make our classrooms truly epic.