Search for the hero

30th September 2011 at 01:00
A teaching guide encourages pupils to see life as a quest in which they are the main character - and its creator insists it can be used across the curriculum

We are all the heroes of our own stories, on a personal quest to tackle the challenges of the world. Whether these involve uncovering villainous plots, searching for hidden treasure or progressing to secondary school is immaterial: what matters is the journey.

This is as true in the classroom as in life, according to Claire Foster-Gilbert, former research fellow at the Centre of Medical Law and Ethics at King's College London and founder of the Ethics Academy.

Ms Foster-Gilbert has created The Hero's Journey, a narrative-cum-teaching guide intended to help schoolchildren overcome obstacles they might face in their lives. The resource was subsequently piloted among Year 6, 7 and 9 pupils, in one primary and two secondary schools.

The hero's journey has 10 stages, familiar to anyone who has ever read the Bible, studied classic literature or watched a Disney film. It begins in the ordinary world. The hero is surrounded by people who appear contented with their lot. But she feels restless, convinced that there must be more to life.

The hero then realises that, to break free, she must listen to the call of destiny. This is rarely simple: she is likely to be riddled by self-doubt. But a wise mentor will insist that she has what it takes, and persuade her to believe in herself.

On the quest, there will be trials to be overcome, enemies to do battle with. Then there is the great ordeal: the decisive battle, where the hero must sacrifice everything in service of the goal. This ultimate sacrifice can feel like a mini-death.

After this, triumphant heroes will be able to claim their prize. And, having discovered unknown strength inside themselves, they can progress to a new level of living.

"It's not like saying that everybody has to be a superhero," Ms Foster-Gilbert says. "We're just saying you are hero of your own life. You've got something in you that's unique. Your own story is completely unique. No one's lived it before, and no one's going to live it again. What are you going to make of it?"

Teachers are encouraged to illustrate each stage of the journey with relevant clips from journey-based films. Pupils can then examine where the main characters start, where their journeys take them, and the pitfalls they face along the way.

"Things worth having are worth fighting for," Ms Foster-Gilbert says. "It's about stick-to-it-iveness. Not calling mistakes 'failure'. You can never say 'I've failed'; you just say, 'Stuff went wrong.' If you pick yourself up and learn from it, it's not failure. It's a lesson. If you've stepped over something that's limiting you, you really feel alive."

Most commonly, the hero's journey has been taught as part of the citizenship, PSHE or RE curriculum. However, pilot schools have also used the lessons to help prepare pupils for the transition from primary to secondary school (equally, it could be used to prepare them for the transition from school to the wider world).

Other schools manufactured a great ordeal for their pupils, offering an ersatz narrative arc. Such ordeals included an outward-bound activity, charity fundraising, and a whole-school presentation.

But heroes' journeys, Ms Foster-Gilbert insists, can be used across the timetable. History and literature are filled with appropriate narratives. And they appear elsewhere, too: in a geography lesson account of creating a sustainable community, for example.

"Society is shaped by the story we tell each other," she says. "There are plenty of true stories of hope. But how can children pull themselves out of hopeless situations if they don't ever hear stories of hope?

"Stuff happens to all of us. Even for really high-achieving children, stuff happens in life. No life goes swimmingly - a life that does is very two-dimensional. It's about how you respond to it. It's about not being a victim. It's about taking part in the story. If you're prepared for setbacks, you're prepared for life."


Founded in 2009, the aim of educational charity the Ethics Academy is to help pupils identify their moral compasses, and to use these to work with and on behalf of their local communities. The charity works primarily with citizenship, PSHE and RE teachers.

Contact Claire Foster-Gilbert by email at


The ordinary world. The ordinary world is familiar and you are a passive victim of it. If you want to break free, you must realise that you are the hero of your own life story.

Hearing the call. The call to change can come from inside you or from outside. You realise that your ideal can become a reality. But how are you going to achieve it?

Refusing the call. You realise that you are not going to change overnight. You are scared. You face inner doubts and fears.

Meeting the mentor. Everyone needs someone to believe in them and to give them advice. Who makes you feel that you can believe in yourself, because they believe in you?

Crossing the threshold. It is now or never. The journey is important. It is time for you to begin.

Trials, allies and enemies. The journey is not easy. The way you deal with the people and events along the way will shape your future. Learn from your mistakes and move on.

Facing the darkness. People around you are letting you down. You have not seen your mentor in a long time. You feel lonely and inadequate. But you cannot go back. The hardest part of the journey happens towards the end.

The great ordeal. The big, decisive battle, when the hero gives everything in service of the goal. It is the last push, and it feels a bit like dying.

Claiming the prize. You know what you went through and you know you deserve the prize. You are the hero of your life's journey.

A new level of life. You have discovered bravery, wisdom, patience, compassion and strength. But there is always more to discover and achieve: what will your next journey be?

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