Parent, Teacher, Author
Once a hero is aware of a problem and the need for change, she encounters fear. This fear arises from the unknown element; we resist moving into something different, even when we know it needs to happen. To make it easier for learners to be willing to broach the unknown, teachers need to help them find the call to adventure that occurs in the Hero’s Journey. Of course learning is an adventure, full of wrestling with new ideas, pushing back our preconceived ideas, and searching for truth.
But how do we in higher education help our students understand the adventure of learning? The beauty of a liberal arts education is that its purpose is to ask big questions, learn to solve problems, and communicate well. It’s easier to see how those goals fit into an adventure. But what about pre-professional programs? Is it more difficult to call a pre-professional student to adventure? It seems to me that the key lies in finding the hook for the student’s interest. He needs to be able to really understand the journey of learning he is on, where it is taking him, and why this particular skill, knowledge, or course is important in helping him get there. In other words, the adventure of the journey is in preparing to become a lawyer or doctor.
Once I was teaching a graduate class in intelligence theory and testing. This is a topic that I love, but most of my students were first year counseling psychology graduate students, and they were not enjoying it. I could tell that I was losing their interest, and they were seeing this class as a box they had to check to move on. Well, having worked in the field for many years before I started teaching, I knew first hand how very important assessment is to identifying the issues that hurting clients are struggling with and helping them find strategies that work to get them moving forward emotionally. I knew how important understanding the theory and being able to use it was in real life. But my students didn’t, and that was causing problems in their being able to accept the call to learning.
At my university, I helped create a program called the Master Teacher Program, which focuses on building knowledge of how learning works and applying it to our classes. Our group read the book How Learning Works (1), and Chapter 3, on the factors that motivate students, struck me. I decided if I was going to help my students connect to the theory and understand its importance, I needed to help them find a call to action, to inspire them to want to join in the adventure of learning this theory and its application. To do this, I focused on the strategies that the research suggests for increasing the value that students place on course activities. Two of the strategies for establishing the value of the assignment or activity are connecting the material to students’ interests and providing authentic, real-world connections.
As I reflected on this class, I began to think about how I might help students in connecting the theory to their interests and making real world connections. So I took a break from talking theory one day and instead had the students do some reflective writing about their goals for their career. What motivated them to choose counseling psychology? What kind of clients did they want to serve? What difference did they hope to make in the lives of their clients? After writing for about 8 minutes, they talked in small groups, sharing their thoughts, and then we discussed the questions as a class. As each student spoke, I asked, “What kind of skills do you need to help your clients?” Then they talked through what they thought they needed to be able to do. By the end of our conversation, I was able to draw the connection between how understanding how and why our clients are challenged and being able to help them find good, strong interventions is crucial to helping each client move forward in a healthy way. It was a call to action that worked, and from that day on, my students were motivated to grow and learn in their own understanding.
As we call our students to the adventure of learning, it’s important to acknowledge the challenge of this journey. Have any of us ever learned anything without difficulty? I remember watching my children learn how to walk, how to ride a bike, how to drive. Building each skill was hard, even painful at times. And I’ve felt the pain of learning myself when I wrestle with a new concept. I may spend a year thinking about one idea and its applications in my field before I get to the place where I can actually start to write or talk about it professionally. To really learn, to build understanding, is no easy task.
In her book Rising Strong(2), Brene Brown shares a conversation with a group at Pixar about the three Acts of storytelling. This goes along with our idea of the Hero’s Journey. In Act 1, there is the call to adventure or action. In Act 2, the hero has to go through a struggle or challenge of some kind to learn what it takes to solve the problem in the call to action. In Act 3, the hero acts and enlightenment occurs. As Brown talked with the Pixar folks about storytelling, they revealed the challenge of Act 2, of what they called “the messy middle.” (3) This is the hardest part of the journey of learning, because you’ve taken up the challenge, you’ve accepted the call to adventure, and you’ve started out onto the path. But, you don’t know what lies ahead. Remember Frodo in The Fellowship of the Rings? He starts out on his journey to Rivendell full of excitement. He’ll just take the ring of power there and be back to the Shire! And then the black riders appear. Gandalf is nowhere to be found. This is Act 2, this is where, if we’re not thoughtful, we lose our students, and they run back to the hobbit holes of their previous understanding, perspective, and thought. That’s where they felt secure, and continuing on the road of learning takes courage.
Those of us who have taught for a while see this fear emerge in our students in different ways. It may be silence, it may be argument, it may be distraction from the topic, and it may be straight out hostility. So how do we help our students prepare for the hard part of learning? How do we help them confront the fear that they may have of new ideas, being wrong, not understanding, and disagreeing with those they care about? How do we help them overcome the fear of these things and commit to change? How do we, in higher education, allow for the messy middle, even when we may be getting calls or emails from parents who don’t want us to make their child uncomfortable? We’ll talk about all of these challenges in the next post in this series, focused on dealing with fear and resistance to change.
 Ambrose, S.A., Bridges, M.W., DiPietro, M., Lovett, M.C., & Norman, M.K. (2010). How Learning Works: 7 Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching. San Francisco: CA, Josey-Bass.
 Brown, B. (2015). Rising Strong: The Reckoning, the Rumble, the Revolution. New York: NY, Spiegal & Grau.
 Brown, pg. 32