Education as Storytelling and the Implications
for Media Literacy

The Design Journey

By Cory Rayala

The Ensō Education Institute—a network of innovators passionate about transforming education by designing a world that works for everyone—emerged from a series of international symposia held in 2019. At an Orlando symposium, we were joined by Marieli Rowe and Karen Ambrosh, respectively the executive director and president of The National Telemedia Council. Marieli shared with us that at the heart of media literacy and critical thinking is the act of “seeing where others have not begun to look.” She emphasized that this is the essential act of both the scientist and the artist. Her words inspired me to think about the connection between science and art, about design thinking, and about Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey. This article highlights my personal connection to the hero’s journey and introduces a working conceptual model of design thinking that draws on the power of storytelling, adventure, and seeing where others have not begun to look.


Cory Rayala is the CEO of the Ensō Education Institute. A lifelong learner and educator, he holds a Masters of Fine Arts in Acting from the University of California, Irvine and a Masters of Arts in English from California State University, Dominguez Hills. He is an education programs consultant for the state department of education in California and a Doctoral candidate in the University of the Pacific’s Educational Leadership and Innovation Program. His research interests include design thinking, action research, and educational entrepreneurship. 


The Hero’s Journey


When we named the Ensō Education Institute, we found inspiration in this symbol from Zen Buddhism. The name and the symbol resonated with us in several ways. The word Ensō translates from Japanese as “circle of togetherness.” Since we are building a community of innovators, the name is a reminder that we are stronger together. Ensō also represents knowledge and enlightenment, a perfect fit for an organization focused on promoting innovation and equity in education. And since the Ensō circle is traditionally hand-drawn, usually in one meditative brush stroke, it represents awareness of the present moment and the beauty of imperfection. It encourages us to let go of the fear of failure and embrace a mindset of iteration and growth.


The Ensō circle resonated with me especially because it is associated with a personal hero of mine, mythologist Joseph Campbell. In fact, the symbol appears on the cover of Campbell's seminal book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces. In that book, he laid out the concept of the monomyth—a template of the common elements of the world's heroic myths. Campbell drew from world religions, especially Hinduism and Buddhism, and from folklore and fairy tales from around the globe. The monomyth includes stages such as the Call to Adventure, the Refusal of the Call, and the Belly of the Whale. Campbell articulated the idea that the hero’s journey is one from the ordinary world to the dream world and back again, which is another reason why the circular Ensō brush stroke is such an apt visualization of the journey. 


Joseph Campbell and his hero's journey were especially important to me because George Lucas borrowed heavily from it when he made Star Wars. Growing up in the 70s and 80s, the mythology that Lucas created in Star Wars defined my childhood. Before I knew anything about the hero’s journey, I internalized the thrill of adventure and the pull toward the unknown as I watched the movies over and over again. I played with my Star Wars action figures imagining that I was Luke Skywalker or Han Solo flying through the galaxy. I also remember the nightmares I had as a child of being pursued by Darth Vader through a vast swamp. In one dream, Emperor Palpatine emerged from the water in the form of an alligator just before I awoke. Clearly, like others of my generation, Star Wars had an indelible impact on my development.


In my teens, I discovered the man who brought us the idea of the hero’s journey in the first place. By watching the PBS series Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth, I learned that Lucas had based Star Wars largely on Campbell’s description of the common themes of the adventures undertaken by mythological heroes throughout the world. To drive this point home, the Bill Moyers interviews with Campbell were filmed at Lucas’ Skywalker Ranch and featured clips from the Star Wars films I loved so much. 


I learned that, almost beat by beat, Luke’s journey in Star Wars follows that common template that Campbell had discovered in his studies of comparative mythology. I recognized the steps in the journey such as the Call to Adventure and the Refusal of the Call as the steps that I had seen Luke take. The Belly of the Whale was translated to the world of science fiction by having the heroes fall into a trash compactor deep within the Death Star and barely escape as the walls closed in on them. The Empire Strikes Back incorporates the Belly of the Whale even more explicitly as the heroes fly the Millennium Falcon into an asteroid’s cave only to learn that the cave is actually (spoiler alert?) a massive space slug.


Other writers and writing teachers began to see the value of Campbell's hero’s journey as well. Most notably, Christopher Vogler adapted it to help explain story structure for screenplays. In addition to being an influential teacher, Vogler also brought his understanding of the hero’s journey to his work with Disney where his insights into Campbell’s work heightened the mythic nature of now classic films such as The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast (Vogler, 2017). 


A more recent interpretation of the hero's journey comes from the television writer/producer Dan Harmon, who is the creator of two of the funniest TV shows in recent memory: Rick and Morty  and Community. The popular series, Rick and Morty, won an Emmy for best animated TV show and is one of my son's favorite shows. Community is notable in part because it launched the career of Donald Glover, who went on to create his own acclaimed show, Atlanta. In another Star Wars connection, Glover also went on to play Lando Calrissian in the Star Wars movie Solo.


Some may attribute Dan Harmon’s genius as a television writer to his flair for comedy, and to be sure his shows are very funny, but I believe that the secret to his success is his deep understanding of story structure. Harmon was not the first to distill Joseph Campbell’s work into key storytelling beats, but his concept of the story circle is the clearest description of the hero’s journey that I have seen. Knowing that Harmon applies it to every project he takes on is proof to me that he, and Campbell before him, tapped into a fundamental way we understand story. The beauty of Harmon’s story circle is that he distilled the hero’s journey down to just eight words: You. Need. Go. Search. Find. Take. Return. Change.

The idea is that every story starts with a character that an audience can identify with. The character has a need, goes on a journey to search for a solution, finds a solution, takes it (and often pays a heavy price for it), and then returns having changed (Harmon, n.d.). It is a deceptively simple structure, but it is remarkable how many times storytellers skimp on or mistime a step and the result is a story that feels unsatisfactory to the audience. These are the movies you walk out of saying, “It just didn’t work.”


Harmon and others have mused on why this story structure is so potent. Ultimately, it taps into the cycles of life that we all experience. The story cycle captivates us because it reflects our human experiences from waking to sleeping, from birth to death, from the conscious world to the unconscious world. Harmon also makes the point that the cycle reflects the steps of the scientific method, which brings us to design thinking.


Design Thinking


Design thinking is sometimes called the creative counterpart to the scientific method, and teachers around the world are beginning to see its potential for creatively reshaping education. Students who engage in the design thinking process develop a stronger sense of themselves as change agents in their community. The human-centered focus of design thinking emphasizes empathy, a cornerstone of social emotional learning. The interdisciplinary nature of design thinking education means that students make novel connections between their courses and discover interests they never knew they had.  

While there is not a universally agreed upon definition of design thinking, most practitioners and theorists view it as a process and a mindset for applying creativity to solve complex problems. The steps of the design thinking process are also not yet firmly established. From a review of the literature, there are at least 35 different models of design thinking (Waidelich et al., 2018). Some have three steps, others have four, many have five, and a few have six or more. Here is what it looks like when you map several of these models onto Harmon’s story circle.


These four models come from Stanford’s d.School (empathize, define, ideate, prototype, test); IDEO (discovery, interpretation, ideation, experimentation, evolution); Google (understand, define, sketch, decide, prototype, validate); and frog design (build, see, imagine, make, plan, clarify). You can see some shared terminology, such as define and prototype, and other terms, such as seek, discovery, and understand, are closely related to each other. You may also notice that these models fit nicely with Dan Harmon’s distilled version of the hero’s journey.


The power in mapping the design thinking process onto the hero’s journey is that humans think in stories. Neurobiologists tell us that without stories our brains would be unable to wrangle the millions of bits of information we take in every second. Simply put, storytelling is the way we make meaning of our experiences and our relationships (Cron, 2012). Or in the words of Joseph Campbell from The Hero with a Thousand Faces:


Religions, philosophies, arts, the social forms of primitive and historic man, prime discoveries in science and technology, the very dreams that blister sleep, boil up from the basic, magic ring of myth. 


By tapping into our innate narrative thinking, we can make explicit the connection between design thinking, which can feel mechanistic to some, and the story journey, which we grasp implicitly. In “journifying” the design thinking process, we hope to make it as engaging as possible for students and teachers (Kelly & Kelly, 2013, p. 236; Sonnenburg, 2017). Since narrative structure is hardwired into our brains, we crave stories. Look no further than the explosion of streaming video services with more content than one could ever watch for proof of this craving. What are these services streaming into our homes? In a word, stories. At their core, we love stories because they put us in the shoes of a hero and allow us to go on an adventure. By combining design thinking with the hero’s journey, we are reminded that we can all be heroes. Every day we wake up is an opportunity to accept the call to adventure and change the world. 


Campbell noticed that the most basic movement of the hero’s journey is from the known to the unknown and back again. This is sometimes referred to as moving from order to chaos; or from the ordinary world to the dream world. It can also be seen as the journey from the world as it is to the world that could be. In design thinking, as in the hero’s journey, after we notice the world as it is, we imagine a world that could be. There is great power in imagining a better world, but it is just the first half of the journey. We must also make the journey back. On the way back, we take what we have found and begin to create the world that could be. As we return to the world as it is, we use what we have created to change it. The world that could be has become the world as it is. And perhaps most importantly, in the process of changing the world, we have changed ourselves. The you that could be has become the you that you are.


The Design Journey

The fundamental cycle between the known and the unknown is at the heart of both the hero’s journey and the design thinking process. By fusing the two cycles, we believe we can create a structure that helps students engage with design thinking by connecting it to their own personal hero’s journey. In the spirit of Vogler and Harmon distilling the hero’s journey, we have taken the multiple models of design thinking and distilled them down to four phases: Notice. Imagine. Create. Evolve. 


Just as the hero’s journey includes thresholds for the hero to cross, there are four thresholds that lead to the phases of the Design Journey and four questions that must be answered before we can cross them. 


Notice – The first threshold is at the start of the notice phase, at the very beginning of the journey. To cross it we must answer the question “Who are you?” To do so requires mindful self-reflection. Only after recognizing our implicit roles in the systems we seek to change can we be ready to empathize with others. 


Imagine – Once we have noticed the world, defined the challenge we will undertake, and answered the question “What is your quest?” we enter the imagine phase. During this phase, we move through an ideation process until our focus narrows to a single idea for innovation. When we can answer the question “What did you discover?” we have reached the midpoint of our journey and are ready to cross the next threshold into the create phase. 


Create – In the create phase we begin the work of designing and prototyping. When we can take what we have created and answer the question “How will you change the world?” we will be ready to return from the dream worlds of imagine and create and begin the final phase.  


Evolve – Similar to the evaluation step of action research, the evolve phase involves testing our creation in the real world and telling our story. Finally, the cycle leads us back to the question we began with: “Who are you?” By changing the world, we have changed ourselves, and we must now reflect on how our worldview has evolved since we began our journey.


In addition to forming an acronym that is NICE and easy for students to remember, when mapped onto the hero’s journey, the four phases of the Design Journey reveal some intriguing connections. Design thinking has sometimes been accused of perpetuating the status quo because of the primacy it gives to the designer. Stanford’s d.School, in collaboration with the National Equity Project, recommended that a noticing phase be incorporated into the design thinking process. By taking yourself into consideration as you notice the world, you're also noticing your position in the world, along with any biases or privileges. Likewise, when you get to the evolve phase and begin changing the world, you recognize that you are also changing yourself. Of course, changing ourselves is really the first step in changing the world. 


Design thinking sometimes gets a bad reputation, especially in education circles, when the process is truncated. For example, sometimes due to lack of time or resources, we cover only the first half of the cycle. We notice and imagine, but once we find a great idea we stop. There is an interesting analogue to storytelling here in that a common occurrence in stories is that the heroes find what they were looking for—what Joseph Campbell sometimes called Meeting with the Goddess—and want to stay there. They don't want to move on. But the only way we can change ourselves and the world is by taking what we find and doing something with it. That is why the prototyping stage of create is so important. 


Nor is it uncommon for design thinking in the classroom to cut the process short after the create phase. We work hard to create something but then ignore the step of returning. The only way we can evolve is by bringing what we have created into the real world and testing it. We need to share our creation and our story with the world. Sometimes this takes the form of piloting our idea. Sometimes it means publishing the story of our journey so that others might be inspired to build upon it. 


Another often discussed topic among design thinking practitioners is the supposed linearity of the process. In practice, design thinking is more recursive and cyclical than linear. This point is supported in the Design Journey through the mirroring of the circular hero’s journey from known to unknown and back again. Other designers point out that, in real world practice, the design thinking process feels as if you are jumping back and forth between steps as you pivot to address new discoveries, challenges, and opportunities. Various models have represented this phenomenon with dotted lines connecting the phases. The Design Journey, borrowing again from Harmon, sees this phenomenon simply as cycles within cycles. Just as the entire journey is one between the unknown and the known, so too is each phase of the journey. Every phase, when broken down, consists of its own journey of noticing, imagining, creating, and evolving.


Next Steps on the Journey


This is just the beginning for the Ensō Education Institute and the Design Journey. The next step is to develop its practical application in the classroom by working with a team of educators and innovators to prototype, test, and refine this early conceptual model. We believe that through thoughtful collaboration and fearless iteration, combining the hero’s journey and design thinking will ultimately help students build resilience, self-confidence, and the belief that they can make a difference in the world. 


As we develop the Design Journey, it is crucial to remember that just as Star Wars was my entry to the hero’s journey, every person will have stories, usually from childhood, that inform the mythic journey. For my sister, Harry Potter served that role. For my wife, who grew up in Mexico, it was the fairy tales she heard on the radio. And for my father, it was Walt Disney’s version of Davy Crockett. 


Interestingly, the stories that epitomize the hero’s journey for my children have emerged from a resurgent trend of reinterpreting and modernizing classic myths and fairy tales. My son’s favorites are Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson books, modern reimaginings of the myth of Perseus. My daughter’s favorites are Chris Colfer’s Land of Stories books, which imagine modern children being transported to a realm of fairy tales. 


For others, though, it may not be books or movies that spark a connection to the hero’s journey but rather video games, songs, biographies of real-life heroes, or myriad other narratives that tap into our innate pull toward the unknown in pursuit of a world that works for everyone. If we keep in mind Marieli’s charge to us of “seeing where others have not begun to look,” the opportunities for connection to the hero's journey are limitless. In the words of Marcel Proust, which speak eloquently to me of the incredible power of storytelling:


The only true voyage of discovery, the only fountain of Eternal Youth, would be not to visit strange lands but to possess other eyes, to behold the universe through the eyes of another, of a hundred others, to behold the hundred universes that each of them beholds, that each of them is.            




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Cron, L. (2012). Wired for story: The writer's guide to using brain science to hook readers from the very first sentence. Ten Speed Press.

Harmon, D. (n.d.). Story Structure.


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Waidelich, L., Richter, A., Kölmel, B., & Bulander, R. (2018, June). Design Thinking Process Model Review. In 2018 IEEE International Conference on Engineering, Technology and Innovation (ICE/ITMC) (pp. 1-9). IEEE.