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Adult learning as a hero's journey: Researching mythic structure as a model for transformational change

Jenny Simpson and Phyllida Coombes
... to be fully human, a person has to see that life has a heroic dimension. If you try to deny that, you settle for something like a good job or a good savings account ... unless you see the heroic moment, you won't rise up and act in a way that's really appropriate ... [Thomas Berry] thinks our way forward, then is to begin to see our lives, in all the details as part of a vast story. (Swimme, 1997, pp. 10-11)
In most accounts of research ethical dilemmas involve 'researcher' and 'researched' as different people. By contrast, this paper focuses on the use of mythic structure as a conceptual framework when learners conduct research into their own lives and intellectual journeys. The paper examines the role of transformational learning in the Skills for Tertiary Education Preparatory Studies (STEPS) pre-undergraduate bridging program at Central Queensland University. Joseph Campbell's (1993) stages of the timeless Hero's Journey have been adapted and used as a tool for reflection in the Language and Learning course of STEPS. We show how an understanding of both the twelve stages of the Quest and the six main archetypes present in modern Western society helps to bring about an appreciation of the transformational learning process in adult students, and assists them in the development of self-knowledge and self-awareness. In this way, critical self-reflection is of direct benefit to these learners-as-researchers.

It was a cold, rainy Friday afternoon in week five of second semester of the Skills for Tertiary Education Preparatory Studies (STEPS) pre-undergraduate bridging program at Central Queensland University. A class of 25 mature age learners had gathered for an Author's Chair session as part of their Language and Learning course. This would be their first attempt to share personal and creative writing. The preceding weeks had not been easy for some of them and the class was beginning to fracture as personalities clashed. One or two of the group members had already asked to be shifted to another group that they saw as more conducive to learning. An Author's Chair session could be a gamble.

Ben was the first who wanted to share his story. The atmosphere was electric. Ben had been causing much of the dissatisfaction in the group with his aggressive manner and need to out-talk, but he had stayed up until 3 am the previous night to finish writing and was determined to read his story. As he poured out his pain and his anger at the recent death of his stillborn first son, his words faltered and at times he appeared as if the pain would not let him continue. When he had finished, the silence in the room was profound. Some of the men - hardened farmers, bricklayers, mechanics, and ex-drug dealer - were quietly weeping; women openly sobbed. The woman who had been the most keen to join a different class leaned over to Ben, placed her hand on his knee and dedicated her poem to him. It was a reflection on the birth of her firstborn child.

The Author's Chair session continued for an hour, often in very light vein, but everyone in that room knew that the class would never be the same again. The sharing of their stories had been the first step towards bringing wholeness to the group.

American educationalist Parker J. Palmer (1993) writes about the need to educate in ways that might heal rather than wound us and our world. To be fully effective, adult learning must be transformative. A vital element of transformative learning is emancipatory learning which frees learners from influences that bind and restrict them, and Cranton (1994) sees its fostering as the central goal of adult education. Emancipatory learning can thus be a means by which adult learners can begin to find what Thomas Merton calls 'the hidden wholeness on which all life depends' (cited in Palmer, 1993, p. xix).

Often adult learners who enter the STEPS program have been forced into study by a rapidly changing world and so are ripe for transformation. Much of that change has not been welcome. Although some certainly come with the intention of embracing a new way of life, others are at first unwilling, unconvinced and frequently very frightened by the prospect of being in an environment that seems to them remote and beyond their intellectual capabilities. They have been sent by workplace advisers and case managers, and many doubt their abilities. For some, the education system they have experienced in earlier times has not been kind to them and has left them with the oft-misguided belief that they were failed learners. The STEPS program sets out, in thirteen weeks, to transform this belief, both in themselves as learners and in learning itself. This is attempted through strategies that will develop whole learners freed from limiting forces that have previously controlled them, learners who have both the skills and the confidence to succeed at university. Thus the understanding of research pursued in both the program and in this paper is the rigorous, systematic, theoretically grounded, critical self-reflection in which STEPS students engage. The paper examines the benefits - which are often accompanied by some painful costs - for these learners-as-researchers.


In the first week of the Language and Learning course (see also McIntosh, 2001, in this issue), recent learning theories are discussed. Students are introduced to the new paradigm of learning that reflects the discoveries of both modern science and personal transformation. The old values of domination, competition and independence have reflected the rational-analytic-reductionist modes of thinking. However, the new advances in quantum physics, complexity theory and holistic biology, and the feminist insights that are emerging as women share their worldviews, have created a shift in values from separateness to integration, and in thinking from the rational to the intuitive (Capra & Steindl-Rast, 1991).

Riane Eisler's 'partnership' model is indicative of the new paradigm of values. This model extols the feminine attributes of co-operation, nurturing and 'illuminating' life, seeing love as 'the highest expression of evolution of life on this planet as well as the universal unifying power' (Eisler, 1996, p. 405). Frijof Capra and David Steindl-Rast (1991) believe that the new paradigm is not 'new' but is really 'a recovery of our most ancient intuition' (p. 79). According to American psychologist, philosopher and teacher Jean Houston (1996), the human psyche is transforming by moving into different states of being. She declares: 'We live in chaos that we may have created in order to hasten our own meeting with ourselves' (p. 6), and she shows how, from these changes, is emerging worldwide a new appreciation of myth.

Consciousness raising is an important part of transformative learning. According to Chaplin (1985, cited in Cranton, 1994, p. 174), consciousness raising is 'the process of developing self-knowledge and self-awareness'. Hart (1990, cited in Cranton, 1994, p. 173) describes conditions of consciousness raising as including: 'acceptance of the importance of personal experience, homogeneity of the learning group with respect to social differences, and a structure of equality among all participants of the group, including the teacher'.

Telling their stories and gaining a deeper understanding of the power of myth to help them make meaning of their lives has proved for many STEPS students to be an effective method of consciousness raising, as well as a powerful means of research into their own learning. The use of stories to instruct is timeless. Campbell (1993) has shown that, when we set out to make sense of our lives and thus ourselves, our lives can become a lifelong quest. Because the Hero's Journey model helps students to see that change and difficulty can be a positive force in their lives, mythic learning-as-research is celebrated in the program alongside the development of the more traditional logical/rational thinking and writing skills.


Myths and legends throughout history have expressed truths about what it is to be human. Since the 1970s, the study of the mythic dimensions of our lives has been advanced through archetypal psychology (Hillman, 1975). Archetypes, according to Carl Jung, are repeating patterns or characters in our dreams and in the myths and legends of all cultures that reflect different aspects of the human mind. Hillman calls them 'the deepest patterns of psychic functioning' (cited in Pearson, 1998, p. 17). Pearson also shows that these archetypes are the structures that are prominent in social systems. Joseph Campbell made a study of world hero myths and in 1949 published The Hero with a Thousand Faces (republished 1993). He found that the theme of each story was universal as they were all basically the same story told across cultures and time. Like Jung, Campbell suggested that their source is the collective unconscious of the human species and, because of their universality, these stories can be keys to understanding the complexities of human existence.

Campbell shows how the Hero's Journey passes through many stages. These represent, although not always in the same order, events in our lives that bring change. The Hero's Journey is a metaphor for life itself; it is both the outer journey and the inner journey. This journey can be difficult when crises force hard decisions. However, after the difficulties of life have been faced and overcome, the sword is finally seized. This sword can be knowledge, improved circumstances or maturity and greater self-awareness (Flowers, 1988).

Christopher Vogler (1996) has adapted Campbell's steps of the Hero's Journey into the twelve stages used in the STEPS program:

Towards the end of the program, as part of the critical self-reflection on their learning-as-research journeys over the past months, STEPS students are asked to journal on each of the twelve stages. Students often express surprise that their shared experiences follow a pattern. For most of them, this is a revelation. It is very freeing for them to see purpose in the difficulties their participation in the program has brought.


The ordinary world
For six long years I had remained in my comfort zone. My house, my daughter, my solitude. This was my ordinary world. There was no alteration to the daily events. There was just living and surviving. I had created this area to keep myself away from the outside world. To venture out meant realising and facing my fears.
The call to adventure
My life was going nowhere, which is what I thought I wanted at the time. Maybe it was the separation from my de facto or maybe it was having my children taken from me and not being there to see them - at any rate, realisation dropped on me like a rock. The world wasn't always going to be a safe comfortable place. There were dragons hiding in the shadows of my reality that I would have to face in order to grow and progress.
Refusal of the call
I had to wait a week before I knew if I'd been accepted and that week was the longest I've ever had to face. The amount of hope, fear, reluctance and excitement I felt during that week was overwhelming. I remember hoping in a way that I wouldn't be accepted in uni. Then I could remain in my comfort zone.
Meeting with the mentor
The teachers right from the very first day were so friendly. In this course they're like family. It's unreal! There's nothing I can't ask them. They are always there for us. I also like the fact that we're encouraged to be peer teachers. We're all here for each other.
Crossing the first threshold
In July of 1999 I crossed the first threshold. I left home, took my daughter to school and drove to university. I sat in my car for what seemed like hours but in reality was only a few minutes. I had to gather my thoughts and control my fears before going to our first meeting. We gathered in the courtyard. As I looked around, everybody appeared calm, laughing and standing with friends. I stood alone, not game to talk to anyone. I felt so out of place - an impostor - asking myself, 'Can I really do this?'
Tests, allies and enemies
Being out of the real world for so long brings with it a naiveté. I thought I would go to uni, come home to my children and manage this way for 13 weeks. How wrong I was! My daughter decided she didn't want me going to uni. She said she couldn't cope with me not being there for her all the time. I started to doubt myself as a caring mother.
Approach to the Innermost Cave (the second threshold)
We've been set high goals to attain which by week six seemed daunting to meet, if not impossible. The maths chapter 1-4 exam was so physically stressful I couldn't think during the exam. Waiting for the results, I was as fearful as I'd been when telling my parents lies when I was a kid.
The Supreme Ordeal
With added pressure from home and family I was on the brink of giving up. My determination to succeed deserted me when I needed it most. For me, this was when the computer ate my assignment the day before it was due. I was devastated. I felt like saying 'I don't care'.
Reward (seizing the sword)
My knowledge is growing as I nurture my cravings for learning. I feel like a child let loose in a candy store. The awe of what is out there is breathtaking and trying to decide where to start exploring and which path to choose next is exhilarating. I still have a lot to learn, but now I am aware of the importance of learning.
The road back
The road back is ahead of me. It represents being able to pursue my dream of being a sound technician, and to know that I have the skills required to achieve what I want.
Right at the point when I felt like hell about losing my assignment to the computer, I found in myself the resolution to fight. I knew that if I let this beat me, it would destroy all I'd won. Through my desperation, I found in myself a new strength and drive. Not only did I hand in the assignment on time, but I find it a great source of pride to have received a high distinction for it.
Return with Elixir (freedom to live)
The world is now my oyster. I know that what I have set my sights on can be accomplished and I am surrounded by positive values. The learning strategies the lecturers introduced us to were wonderful and are working well in other parts of my life. Also the understanding I gained about myself from the reflective sessions will lead me into my future with renewed confidence.


Butler (1993) has created a model suggestive of the Hero's Journey that demonstrates the power of critical self-reflection in changing worldviews through adult learning-as-research. Transformational learning empowers learners to challenge and change their worldviews, thus preparing them to face new opportunities as they overcome their difficulties and disadvantages (Lepani, 1995). Butler shows that worldviews are very powerful because they are deeply held and expressed in everything we do; however we cannot always see this essential self that is truly us. The development of critical, theoretically informed, self-reflective practices allows us to do this. Reflection is the process that connects the outer with the inner, and looking at our own beliefs, assumptions and values is a critical starting point for change and growth. Public information (PK) is the information that is passed on in the outside world. It is external to the learner. The Butler Model shows how this store of knowledge can become internalised (PPK) and thus, through reflection, become part of the learner's worldview. Further reflection will allow this worldview to impact on personal action. Thus, people change and grow.

Adult learning can be seen as a Hero's Journey because it is not a straightforward process. Butler (1993) warns that any transformational learning event must have its unsettling periods. He agrees with Jackson (1968, p. 166) that 'the path to educational progress more closely resembles the flight of a butterfly than the flight of a bullet'. As the twelve stages show, any worthwhile learning experience will encounter negative periods and discomfort. Because learning-as-research takes us somewhere that we did not know exists, the journey of discovery must pass through confusion, uncertainty and challenge. This is the Hero's Journey. The learner leaves the comfort zone of the known and, crossing the first threshold, encounters trials as he or she unlearns outmoded habits. The past must be deconstructed before the learner can reconstruct the future. Once the future is reached, the learning can be said to have been truly transformative. If it does not pass through this stage of confusion and conflict and then be transformed through reflection, adult learning is less effective (Butler, 1993). It is this apparent paradox that suggests that the benefits of learning-as-research cannot be achieved without some personal and sometimes painful costs to the learner-as-researcher.


Mythic learning also provides students with characters to help them understand their present and changing worldviews. According to archetypal psychologist Carol Pearson (1998) there are six main archetypes, all strongly present in today's Western culture, that impact on our lives as we experience our heroic journeys. Pearson suggests that we can think of the archetypes as inner personalities, agents that help us learn. As we travel on our Hero's Journeys our worldviews change as different archetypes enter our lives and we unconsciously succumb to their different archetypal plots that are so powerful.

Table 1: Archtypal Plots (Pearson, 1998, p 18)

ORPHANHow I suffered/how I survivedResilience
WANDERERHow I escaped/how I found my way in the worldIndependence
WARRIORHow I achieved my goals/ how I defeated my enemiesCourage
ALTRUISTHow I gave to others/how I sacrificedCompassion
RETURNED INNOCENTHow I found happiness/the promised landFaith
MAGICIANHow I changed my worldPower

It can be healing for students to gain an understanding of these stories that we all unconsciously tell ourselves about our lives and to know that it is possible to change to a different story. To illustrate the need for humans to find purpose in the complexities of living, Viktor Frankl (1964) quoted Nietzche: 'He [sic] who has a why to live can bear with almost any how' (p. iii; emphasis in original). Not all STEPS students want or are ready for this understanding, but those who volunteer for the archetype workshop near the end of the program become aware of the plot lines they are living, and this insight, says Pearson (1998), can bring a sense of freedom. 'Becoming aware of and then questioning one's construction of meaning' (Cranton, 1994, p. 174) can be a transformative experience. In this way, critical self-reflection and learning-as-research can have immediate and direct benefits for the participants.


Action research can be defined as learning and improved practice based on action, evaluation (through observation of the action) and critical reflection on the consequences of the action. This makes possible an awareness of the learning process and an understanding of the values that underpin it. The Hero's Journey, we believe, is ideal for this purpose. The learning process, based on mythic structure, is theoretically informed, but it also incorporates a practical element since, in engaging in critical reflection, learners and teachers are also documenting reality. The adult learners engaged in the STEPS program can be described as non-traditional. Their experiences of formal education have been discouraging, or so remote in time as to be irrelevant. Many of them approach the learning and research journey with trepidation. Nevertheless, the context is a privileged one in the sense that there is an interdependent and mutually responsive relationship, rather than one of insider/outsider (see Jarzabkowski, 2001, in this issue), between the researchers and the researched. In this dynamic process learners become researchers into their own learning, thus contributing directly towards improved outcomes.

In many ways the Hero's Journey symbolises the learning journey that is the essence of the STEPS program. It is a transformative process where the first important step for the students is for them to accept the value of their prior experience and develop a degree of confidence in themselves as learners. The next stage is an understanding of the purpose of the enterprise. Thus, while the facilitators of the course have initiated the research, to be truly effective this needs to be a joint venture in which students are actively involved.

Who then benefits from the action research? Critical self-reflection has led to these conclusions. Firstly the students all benefit to some degree, whether they complete the program or not. The ripples of their developing self-awareness spread outwards to their families and friends, to the community and to the university. The learning process is both powerful and fragile since in many ways critical self-reflection and learning-as-research can pose a challenge to the traditional academic analysis model (see McIntosh, 2001, in this issue). The researchers who share in the learning journey also share in the benefits through deeper understanding of all the issues involved. Since, however, true transformation does require sacrifice, there are also costs to be confronted. In accepting change, learners (and even teachers) sometimes have to leave their comfort zones and confront their self-doubts. Nonetheless, as the venturers share in the Hero's Journey, the answer to the question 'Cui bono?' ('Who benefits?') becomes abundantly clear. Learners and teachers share in the rewards as they share in the learning journey.

Like many of the best narratives, Ben's story, as recounted at the beginning of this article, is true. Through the power of critical self-reflection as the program proceeds, adult learners can recognise the archetypes in themselves, as well as the progression of the Hero's Journey, as stages in their own learning and research odyssey. It is important for them to pause and consider themselves and their involvement in the adventure. They have accepted the challenge by embarking on the course and their knowledge, understanding and attitudes have changed and grown as a result. Finally, their lives have been, and will continue to be, transformed. They can perceive the STEPS pre-undergraduate bridging program, not merely as a means to an end, but as a definitive progression towards lifelong and research-based learning.

Ben's Hero's Journey was triumphant. In the final week of the program he wrote these words that he presented at the STEPS graduation ceremony:

Something keeps me going.
Along this journey a Warrior has emerged from me -
Not to conquer,
But to lead the Wanderer back to himself.
Life is my quest and I have much to learn.
I have feared myself -
I have hated myself -
And now I am at peace with myself.
I was lost
But now I have taken steps to soothe my weary feet.
I am ready to celebrate the magic of learning -
The magic of life -
The magic of me.
I will go boldly on beyond the edge of my world
Into an exciting future.


Butler, J. (1993). From action to thought: The fulfilment of human potential. In J. Edwards (Ed.), Thinking: International interdisciplinary perspectives (pp. 16-22). Melbourne: Hawker Brownlow Education.

Campbell, J. (1993). The hero with a thousand faces. London: Fontana Press.

Capra, F. & Steindl-Rast, D. (1991). Belonging to the universe: Explorations on the frontiers of science and spirituality. San Francisco: Harper.

Cranton, P. (1994). Understanding and promoting transformative learning: A guide for educators of adults. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Eisler, R. (1996). Sacred pleasure. Sydney: Doubleday.

Flowers, B. (Ed.) (1998). The power of myth: Joseph Campbell with Bill Moyers. New York: Doubleday.

Frankl, V. (1964). Man's search for meaning. London: Hodder and Stoughton.

Hillman, J. (1975). Revisioning psychology. New York: Harper and Row.

Houston, J. (1996). A mythic life. San Francisco: Harper.

Jarzabkowski, L. (2001). Emotional labour in educational research. Queensland Journal of Educational Research, 17(2), 123-137. http://education.curtin.edu.au/iier/qjer/qjer17/jarzabkowski.html

Jackson, P. (1968). Life in classrooms. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

Lepani, B. (1995). Education in the information society. Sydney: Australian Centre for Innovation and International competitiveness, University of Sydney. Accessed 10 August 2000, verified 19 Dec 2004: http://www.wolfson.ox.ac.uk/~floridi/edinfo.htm

McIntosh, S. (2001). A critical writing pedagogy: Who benefits? Queensland Journal of Educational Research, 17(2), 152-163. http://education.curtin.edu.au/iier/qjer/qjer17/mcintosh.html

Palmer, P. (1993). To know as we are known: Education as a spiritual journey. San Francisco: Harper.

Pearson, C. (1998). The hero within: The six archetypes we live by. San Francisco: Harper.

Swimme, B. (1997). Science as wisdom: The new story as a way forward. An interview with Lauren de Boer. Earthlight Magazine, 26, 10-11, 15, 22. Accessed 7 November 2001, verified 19 Dec 2004: http://www.earthlight.org/interview26.html

Vogler, C. (1996). The writer's journey: Mythic structure for storytellers and screenwriters. London: Boxtree.

Author details: Jenny Simpson is a co-ordinator and lecturer, and Phyllida Coombes is a recently retired lecturer, in the Skills for Tertiary Education Preparatory Studies program in the Division of Teaching and Learning Services at the Rockhampton campus of Central Queensland University.

Address for correspondence: Ms Jenny Simpson, Division of Teaching and Learning Services, Central Queensland University, Rockhampton 4702. email: j.simpson@cqu.edu.au

Please cite as: Simpson, J. and Coombes, P. (2001). Adult learning as a hero's journey: Researching mythic structure as a model for transformational change. Queensland Journal of Educational Research, 17(2), 164-177. http://education.curtin.edu.au/iier/qjer/qjer17/simpson.html

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Created 12 Dec 2004. Last revision: 19 Dec 2004.
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