... 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.
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.
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:
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.Resurrection
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.
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.
|ORPHAN||How I suffered/how I survived||Resilience|
|WANDERER||How I escaped/how I found my way in the world||Independence|
|WARRIOR||How I achieved my goals/ how I defeated my enemies||Courage|
|ALTRUIST||How I gave to others/how I sacrificed||Compassion|
|RETURNED INNOCENT||How I found happiness/the promised land||Faith|
|MAGICIAN||How I changed my world||Power|
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.
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:
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|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: email@example.com
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