night sky with silhouette of person holding a light saber

Note: During winter break I saw the final episode of the Star Wars movies and decided to update this post, which I wrote after hearing an idea in 2015 at PBL World in the keynote by Ramsey Musallam, a high school chemistry teacher.

The learning cycle that happens in Project Based Learning has parallels to the classic “hero’s journey.”

The mythologist Joseph Campbell in The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949) explained this basic narrative pattern as:

A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.

Many myths and stories throughout human history, and in movies, follow this pattern, from Odysseus to Buddha (shown above) to Frodo in The Lord of the Rings to Neo in The Matrix— and Star Wars. George Lucas read Campbell’s work and modeled the story of Luke Skywalker after it.

Many an English teacher (as I did) has shown clips from the Star Wars films to help students make meaning of stories in literature. The hero’s journey model can also help with understanding the psychological “journey” taken by adolescents as they enter adulthood.

Ramsey Musallam had the brilliant insight to connect this journey to PBL, so I've run with it and expanded the metaphor.

Here are the basic steps in a hero's journey, comparing Luke Skywalker in the original three movies with what a student undergoes in a PBL project:


grid on the steps in a hero's journey (Star Wars and PBL Project


OK, that’s a PBL + Star Wars geek-out, but a pretty cool idea, eh? (Too bad I couldn’t post this on May the Fourth…)

If you’re a teacher who’s new to PBL, seeing a project as a hero’s journey might help you get through the first couple of projects. Because even if it sometimes feels like you’re entering the abyss, realize that it’s part of the journey – and your students will eventually return as heroes.

John is an education consultant and writer. He was the editor in chief at PBLWorks for many years.