The Learner as Protagonist

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Diagrams from a web conference white board discussing Stefan Rasporich's Learner as Protagonist.

Investigating the Question

When investigating the potential of digital learning objects, it is important to consider the learning context in which these objects will be employed. Each learner is different, and knowledge of an overall learner profile may make pedagogical strategies more effective in enhancing learner motivation, retention, and self-confidence. More importantly, it is essential for the learner to be motivated by the 'expectancy of value' (Keller, 2001) where they perceive that the learning they are about to embark upon has value and that they are able to succeed at it. Thus, the design and implementation of the learning objects must match the expectations for value that the learner will have in a given learning context and give the leaner a sense of being able to succeed. Under these assumptions, I will introduce, elaborate and critically examine three ideas, the first being the learner as an active 'protagonist' whose learning journey can be compared to the narrative character arcs of fictional protagonists. This will be examined through the lens of popular movies by focusing on the structural document from which they are derived - the screenplay. Secondly, I will attempt to show how learning objects would be organized in 'Athans,' a proposed online environment customized for students, teachers, and artists of the Calgary Arts Academy. Lastly, I will explore how learning objects designed for the narrative learner could be disseminated to a wider audience as the entire process of online creation and collaboration of fantasy stories within the Athans framework builds its own internal 'dissemination engine.'

What is the Learning Context of The Calgary Arts Academy?

In Alberta, there has been a movement in the field of education towards providing choice in education in the form of charter schools. These schools offer a variety of methods of instruction, ranging from back-to-basics to science-focused approaches. However, what unites them all is the common need to have a written charter which explicitly states their pedagogical philosophies and how their instruction differs from existing public school practices. The Calgary Arts Academy's (CAA) central charter components are Arts Immersion, the Circle of Courage, Brain Gym, Democratic Discipline, and self -guided contract learning. Pre and post testing is done to provide a quantitative assessment of contract learning, as well as standardized tools like the Canadian Test of Basic Skills.

Arts Immersion (ArtI) requires that the Alberta curriculum is taught through the lens of an art form - dance, drama, visual, music, or literary art. Furthermore, the instruction is developed through collaboration with educators and artists who decide first upon an art form and then decide upon curricular objectives to explore through a chosen art form. This is known as the Curriculum Planning Model (CPM) which identifies the art form as the central starting place or keystone of the planning model. Following development of the CPM, the day-to-day learning is situated within the structure of a learning contract, also collaboratively developed by the artist and educator and agreed upon in consultation with students and parents. Each learning contract has three levels of effort the student chooses to complete divided into three categories; Beginner, Intermediate, and Mastery (BIM). The Mastery level of effort usually requires student expression of their own creative ideas while the Beginner level meets the basic curricular requirements. Also, the learning contracts are assessed by rubrics that are collaboratively determined with the artist, educator, and students. Assessment includes curricular outcomes as well as specific art form outcomes, and are also rated on a BIM scale. As an educator at CAA since its inception four years ago, I have worked with these charter requirements and have gained insight into both the teaching and learning process in a charter environment and my identity as an educator, artist, and learner.

CAA Learner Identity

In instructional design it is a common practice to conduct a needs analysis to better understand how pedagogical methods could be implemented. Since it is possible to consider a CAA learner's needs as derived directly from their expectations of future learning, using the expectancy value theory of motivation (Keller, 2001) illuminates what a CAA learner values, and in what ways will they expect to succeed in their learning. Essentially, by focusing on the learner's most confident self-perception - their most successful and motivated learner 'identity?' (Crichton, 2002) - their needs can be analyzed most accurately from a stance of strength versus one of weakness. Also, I will attempt to situate this micro-view of the learner within the larger macro view informed by narrative theory, which places the learner as the central protagonist in their personal learning journey. In this analogy, the learner experiences obstacles to their objectives, turning points, forces of antagonism, triumph of personal character attributes, a central dramatic problem, and many other aspects that reflect how screenplays are developed.

At CAA there are several aspects of learning that contribute to the positive motivation of learners. First, there must be an expectation of interactivity in the learning tasks. If a student anticipates that the delivery of content will be a one-way exchange, it makes no difference whether the medium of delivery is, for example, a video or a lecture, the student will not expect to derive value from the experience. In contrast, if a student is consulted as to how their learning needs may be met by simply being given a choice as to how they may proceed, they will expect both value and personal success in their future learning. The level of prescription of choice does not need to be great, for example an educator may say "you have the choice of creating a 5 page collage-essay OR creating a 5 page collage-essay with a smile," what matters is the choice is offered. Offering choice achieves two things, first by giving the student an opportunity to interact with the learning process they feel a sense of empowerment that gives them the impression that future choices will be forthcoming, it boosts their confidence at the crucial tone-setting early stages. Secondly, they feel that their learning needs are being consulted, a strategy for building relevance in the ARCS model of motivation (Keller, 2001), helping educators to act as collaborators with students in building learning contracts together. The combination of learner self-confidence and engagement are what allows CAA students to become engaged learners while immersed in learning through the arts, and self-guided researchers who view themselves in the role of the protagonist of a personal learning narrative.

The Learner as Protagonist

In Jonassen's examination of learning philosophies and instructional systems technology (IST), he describes the constructivist philosophy as one where the knower constructs their own reality based on their physical and mental perceptions. This differs from objectivist philosophy which is more concerned with how learners acquire knowledge of an objective reality. The proposed method of treating the learner as protagonist, builds upon the constructivist claim that each individual filters their perceptions from an external, "real" world to build their own selective internal world. The learner as protagonist affirms that the individual is always making a choice, consciously or unconsciously, to select, or choose, their own personal reality. Similarly, the dramatic protagonist in movies is often presented with choices which they must make. They do not, as agents of their own free will, allow other forces to make choices for them as they pursue an overriding dramatic objective. In fact, the audience demands that protagonists make decisions which reflect what they themselves could do, providing catharsis and validation of their own social worldview (Dethridge, 2003). So, the learner can be viewed as an agent of their own learning, with their own individualistic traits and preferences, that will cause them to make decisions based on interpretations of a reality they have constructed from their own physical and mental perceptions of an outside world. In other words, as a protagonist who chooses their own learning quest.

If this analogy of the learner as protagonist is to be taken further, one must consider the temporal framework that organizes the concepts, feelings, epiphanies, and choices of a protagonist into a coherent story with a beginning, middle, and end - the narrative. Narrative structure provides a familiar and suitable temporal organizer as hominids have a predisposition towards it, but more importantly the narrative structure may exist at the deepest levels of human understanding. Some researchers claim narrative interpretations of the world existed even before our species acquired speech, in gestural form (Newman, 2005). Considering this primal feature of our species' intelligence, matching pedagogical processes with narrative formats has potential value. It is a way for learners to organize unfamiliar texts and enhances cognitive process. In fact, according to Luckin, Plowman, Laurillard, Stratfold, and Taylor, "learners constantly adjust their understanding in accordance with their exposure to conventional narratives" (1999, p.2)

As learners in early childhood, many are exposed to conventional narratives as they learn to read through stories, and are often told stories or view them on a variety of visual media like television. It is not a difficult extension, then, to have learners cast themselves as the central dramatic character of their own story. Content that is often presented in story formats - such as case studies - are often so familiar in their structure to the narrative learner that they are able to predict the outcomes at early stages of the narrative, even with incomplete information (Callaway, Lee, Lester, Mott, and Zettlemoyer, 1999).

Using narrative formats as pedagogical tools to present content reinforces the larger view of the learner as protagonist proposed here. The learner as protagonist is thus revised to be an agent who determines their own learning by constructing their own reality based on physical and mental perceptions, organized temporally into a narrative with a clear beginning, middle, and end to mirror the journey of a dramatic protagonist.

Role-playing and Learner Identity

It is often difficult to separate the behaviour from the child, especially when discussing discipline issues with parents. Johnny is not a bad person, he just does inappropriate things. There is little doubt that we, as humans, play different roles according to the social context we inhabit. For example, there will be a different set of behaviours I would display in front of students in a classroom than in front of peers in a university course. My internal view of myself as a 'teacher' is different than that of a 'learner' and I even use different types of language in both of these worlds - in short, I am playing different roles. I orient myself in either world based on interpretations of my physical and mental perceptions, and then make choices as to what role to play in light of what will be most beneficial for my future in either reality. My students are no different. They quickly realize they are in a classroom by observing the other students, the presence of desks and a whiteboard, and the teacher standing at the front of the room. They then realize their role in this reality is that of 'student' and so choose to fulfill the role they have constructed for themselves in this context. Some view themselves as hard-working and attentive pure students, while others see themselves as a mix of friend and student who switch between these mini-roles at will. Each has their own self-perception of themselves as a learner, their role in a classroom context, their learner identity, that is an unconscious set of behaviours which have been internalized over a long period of time.

By separating learning behaviours from learning identities, by creating an learning avatar that is at arm's length from the core self-concept, the process of learning becomes a role-play adventure where making mistakes can be celebrated rather than fatal, building confidence instead of tearing it down. And what about making this role conscious to the learner? This can be done by making the learning process a series of self-aware choices, as the investigation of finding out a learner identity is made to resemble the journey of a protagonist who is often on a similar quest of self-discovery. The protagonist's journey is highly structured through narrative and the learner will have comfort in knowing their learning path will also have clear limits - ones that are very familiar to them. As a learner in the context of CAA, this will be most valuable as students are required to reflect on their learning. By putting these reflections as observations of their learning avatar on a learning quest, they will be able to develop a meaningful and insightful account of their progress. Finally, the learner as protagonist is consciously aware of themselves playing a role and have clear expectations of how their personal learning will transpire, since it will follow conventional rules of narrative. They will make choices based on their perceptions of reality, which will allow them to consciously reflect upon how their learner identity is evolving as a result of living the reality of their choices.

The Role of the Instructor as Drama Manager

If one accepts the learner as protagonist model, which requires stepping beyond conventional views of teaching and learning, then it follows that a new model of the instructor as something more than a disseminator of information be imagined. Inquiry-based teaching and learning have the instructor as a facilitator, who perturbs the learner's surface view of the "real" world through ill-structured models and assists them in constructing their own realities by making them conscious of their means of interpretation. On the other hand, there are pedagogical philosophies which place the instructor as the interpreter of a an objective "real" world, which focuses on how their delivery of this content can best engage learners. However, both models are incomplete when the learner is seen as a protagonist. The objectivist instructor's methods always depend on their abilities to be engaging, or entertaining, while constructivist models shifts the focus to developing each learner's individual skills in reasoning and acquiring new knowledge. The inquiry model excels in helping students formulate their own realities and question underlying assumptions, but misses one essential feature - the affective, or emotional, domain.

At the very core of dramatic narrative is an emotional catharsis by the audience as they experience, by proxy, the feelings and thoughts of a central character in a dramatic climax. When the learner experiences their own learning climax, having overcome obstacles and tests along the way, they do so in a combination of their physical, mental, and emotional whole being. In this view, these components are inseparable and make an entire gestalt of the learner as a whole protagonist who makes choices based on physical and mental perceptions in an overall narrative framework. As a result, the role of the instructor must be made to be compatible with this view of the learner - the instructor as drama manager. Weyhrauch argues that, "in narrative-centered learning environments, pedagogical planners must serve in the dual capacity of drama managers (as cited in Callaway, et al., 1999, p.3) and tutorial action managers. Thus, the instructor must be a facilitator in the constructivist sense, perturbing the learner's view of an external reality, but must also manage the learning so that it mirrors the dramatic journey inherent in narrative structure.

Proposed Implementation

Many of the components of the learner as protagonist have already been implemented at CAA. Students are offered choices in their learning contracts as to what learning path they wish to take, and the instructor acts as a facilitator in helping them to research and refine their work. However, the analogy of the student as a protagonist has never been explicitly communicated, nor has the development of learner identity been viewed as a role-playing activity. One of the main benefits of reworking this analogy is the greater focus to narrative structures it brings, which reinforces learning at many levels - from the case study to the multiple-choice question.

Why the Screenplay?

I have used the screenplay versus literary or even theatrical views of narrative as it encompasses all of the art forms used at CAA. As the learner protagonist is equipped with new knowledge and skills they will overcome a variety of obstacles and tests, making choices along the way, to finally achieve something of value to them on their personal learning quest. This quest will provide a pleasing gateway for memories of the learning to be retrieved at a later time, as events are internally organized through an invisible narrative structure, which frames learning in a familiar manner. Finally, knowledge of the screenplay as a format empowers the move away from consumers of media to producers of it. One of our goals at CAA is for students to become working artists, and the film media has the greatest potential for collaboration in the greatest variety of art forms, even more than theatrical productions.

Screenplay Structure and Pedagogical Planning: Finding Nemo in A Lesson Plan

To learn how a screenplay is structured, this is best reinforced for the educator if they view their students as protagonists within their own stories and design the learning to follow that. Then, each student will have more of a chance of internalizing the structure so that they will be able to do it automatically. The educator in this sense is a 'drama manager' who manipulates the learning events of students to parallel the dramatic structure, or plot, of a screenplay. Dethridge (2003) identifies the four essential components of the screenplay as protagonist, premise, dramatic problem, and plot - conveniently known as the four "P's." Using Pixar's Finding Nemo as an example, what follows is a description of how elements of narrative structure can be practically applied to pedagogical practices at CAA.

The Protagonist

The protagonist in a screenplay has a history, or backstory, which often reveals a set of skills and nascent strengths that will fuel their overcoming of obstacles later in the story. In Finding Nemo, the protagonist is Marlon, Nemo's father, who in the backstory has lost his wife and has been acting in an overprotective way of his son, Nemo, when the story begins. It is this sense of protecting his son that spurs Marlon to risk his own life in order to save Nemo's. Ironically, it is this same drive that creates conflict with Nemo, who feels too crowded and protected. The learner protagonist also has a backstory which could be seen as a learner profile comprised of learning styles, or preferences, prior skills, and prior knowledge. A key component in developing confidence (Keller, 2001) is the expectancy of success, and it is the instructor as drama manager's responsibility to make sure that learners will expect their strengths, skills, and knowledge to be assets prior to entering the learning quest. The instructor drama manager at CAA can use diagnostic pre-tests to assess the learner's prior knowledge and skills in both the content areas being covered as well as the art forms. However, to most accurately mirror the screenplay, the learner protagonist must be made aware of the fact that there are nascent skills, strengths, and knowledge that they will develop as a result of meeting obstacles. The process of self-reflection, a charter demand of CAA, should focus on this process of self-discovery as the learner protagonist affirms existing strengths while recognizing the development of new ones.

The Premise

The premise is the central belief of the author proven in the climax which reinforces a moral choice that the protagonist makes and resonates with the audience. This can be seen from the protagonist's viewpoint as "It is better to ____ than to ____." Finding Nemo's premise may be expressed as "It is better to let a child experience independence than to protect them from difficulty. " The premise of the learner protagonist also needs to be expressed in a moral way since narrative structure demands it - we remember the 'moral' of a story. To return to the concept of the learner as whole made up of thoughts, feelings, and at the very core an internalized set of values, to ignore the moral and ethical filters which determine how they construct reality would be erroneous. Indeed, one may argue that personal values are at the very core of how students perceive the world.

To start the process of developing a premise, Dethridge (2003) suggests reflecting upon what really makes you angry. In other words, what existing realities as you perceive them are in conflict with internal values of how you believe the world should be. The instructor must also engage students' moral filters by presenting the content in a way that allows students to interact with it affectively. If the topic is 'Heat and Temperature,' students could be asked what they feel strongly about with this topic, or what makes them angry. Perhaps some will complain about how heat-stroke affects them, others how they feel global warming is destroying the Arctic. At every point in the learner protagonists journey this core question must be modified in the light of new information, and the process of inquiry is built at becomes an emotional and moral foundation versus a purely conceptual one. At CAA the concept of situating learning in a moral framework is implemented through the Circle of Courage, a charter requirement. It emphasizes the practice of four main values - belonging, mastery, independence, and generosity. It follows, then, to view the screenplay's dramatic premise as compatible with the CAA contract learning objective as they both have a value-driven approach.

The Dramatic Problem

The dramatic problem is the engine of the screenplay, and is what drives the protagonist out of everyday life to use all of their resources to overcome obstacles as they seek out its resolution. When Nemo disappears, Marlon's life is tilted out of balance, and must leave his everyday, safe life to find his son despite terrible dangers along the way. In the same way, the learner protagonist needs to be compelled to resolve a problem that will require all of their resources, to be challenged at a level that will do so without overcoming them - similar to Vygotsky's "zone of proximal development" (as cited in Callele, 2004, p.7).

It is essential that this problem is articulated carefully as it represents an unknown path that the learner practically builds as they go along. The instructor drama manager, armed with knowledge of each learner protagonist's backstory and premise, can co-create the dramatic problem as an inquiry to perturb their surface assumptions. The creation of ill-structured (Jonassen) dramatic problems, without a clear knowable resolution at its inception, would be the ideal format since it most closely parallels the dramatic problem in screenplays. Neither the protagonist nor the learner protagonist know the answers at the beginning of their quest, and will encounter seemingly unsurmountable obstacles to its resolution. The only major difference is that the learner protagonist is conscious of their dramatic problem, and able to articulate it, while the fictional protagonist remains unaware of their own journey.


The plot of the screenplay is summarized by Dethridge into seven steps:

1. Set-Up - the everyday life of the protagonist. 2. Initial Incident (Catalyst) - event that upsets balance of everyday life, and where the dramatic problem is introduced. 3. Act I Turning point - the point of no return, where the protagonist chooses to go forward. 4. Midpoint - the low point where the protagonist almost gives up. 5. Act II Turning point - the protagonist finds the determination that propels them to the climax, often has conflict with a secondary character like a love interest or antagonist. 6. Climax - protagonist makes a choice which proves the premise of the author (just before, it seems that all is lost). 7. Denouement - the tying up of loose ends, shows how everyday life has changed since the beginning.

With the learner protagonist and the instructor drama manager, using contract learning in the context of the CAA, the screenplay narrative structure may be applied as follows:

Screenplay Narrative Element CAA Learning Contract Element Learner Protagonist Action Instructor Drama Manager Action
Set-Up Pre-tests, learning profiles, strength assessment. Learning contract first draft. Become aware of existing and nascent strengths. Start self-reflection, and anticipation of success. Clarify and construct learning contract with instructor. Articulate premise. Develop pre-test. Create awareness of strengths. Develop learning contract collaboratively. Develop premises.
Initial Incident Learning contract completed. Articulate dramatic problem as the learning contract objective. Choose effort level and decide rubrics in accordance with dramatic problem. Perturb learner assumptions. Craft ill-structured dramatic problems. Decide rubrics in accordance with dramatic problem.
Act I Turning Point Direct instruction. Complete obstacles, reflect on how these build upon existing strengths. Build confidence with low-stakes obstacles (questions related to content). Present content in case study format, reflecting narrative format.
Mid-Point Direct instruction. Articulate feelings about not being able to complete task in self-reflection, and how strengths can be employed to overcome. Present overwhelming challenge that causes learner to doubt themselves. (High level question or missing information)
Act II Turning Point Inquiry (Group work possible here to share strengths) Reflect on new strengths as well as how existing ones help. Implement instructional steps to success that build upon strengths, again in case study format to reinforce narrative. Perturb learner assumptions.
Climax Post-tests Presentations Use existing skills and knowledge to complete tests. Give presentations to formulate premise, and how premise may be modified since beginning. Also articulate dramatic problem and how it has been modified as well. Mark with rubrics. Facilitate presentations, questioning, and deeper articulation of premise and dramatic problem.
Denouement Assessments Identify in summative assessment the validation of personal strengths as evidenced by results. Self-reflection and assessment, articulated to instructor, describing how dramatic problem and premise have changed initial strengths and introduced new ones. Summative assessment post-test given back as validation of personal strength. Formative assessment conversation with each student as they self-assess.


What is the future of narrative-based approaches to learning? An essential aspect of building success using this model requires that the learner is exposed to narrative structure at every turn. One may call it 'fractal narrative pedagogy' where structures repeat up and down the scale. So, a year plan, a unit plan, a day plan - all follow the inherent narrative structure and through repetition give the learner an internal method of scaffolding new information into meaningful constructs. Even overall institutional change could be extrapolated from this on the macro-end, where a group of people all ascribe to common goals and construct a collective narrative towards transformative growth. Also, the extrapolation of narrative to other contexts, such as group work and collaboration, can bring exciting energy and focus when framed within a dramatic structure. But perhaps the most promising of all is looking at how radical redesigns of learner interaction with learning objects, particularly in an online environment. Fortunately, a detailed proposal of how such an online environment could be created for the CAA learner – - is what follows.

Developing Mastery in the Artist-Scholar

One of the most striking aspects of J.R.R Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings" trilogy is the fact that the author developed the Elvish languages and creation mythology of Middle-Earth before creating the narratives that exist within them. As a linguist, he had phenomenal skills in learning grammatical and idiomatic structures of foreign languages, in order to apply them into creating new, invented ones. Also, skills in his native language of English were equally acute to allow him to acquire other languages and redesign them into new forms. Indeed, his English skills were sufficiently advanced that he worked on the Oxford dictionary in collaboration with scholars of the time. The fact that an author can create a fantasy world with linguistically analogous constructs with the real world reveals a mastery level of knowledge and skills in that individual - a mastery level which educators strive for at CAA. Students who are able to combine their skills as both artists and scholars and become creators of their own world fulfill a key goal of the learner as protagonist; development of the confident learner identity through creative self-expression.

Creativity and the CAA Learner

Einstein stated “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” This statement helps to argue that creativity and the construction of new knowledge has more value than mastering knowledge alone. Jonassen (1999) supports this view, and argues that "instruction should focus on providing tools and environments for helping learners interpret the multiple perspectives of the world in creating their own world view." Thus, the learner develops skills as a creative thinker by interpreting the world through their senses and composing an inner learner identity. The key to this process of assembling a world view is the creative engine which selects, juxtaposes, and most importantly, makes new connections between irregular and contrasting ideas to fuse new concepts together. At CAA, these skills are practiced daily when students learn curricular concepts through art forms, combining them in new and creative ways through learning contracts.

Why a framework? Creativity, Within Boundaries

Creativity and imagination are broad concepts and difficult to define. However, Necka (as cited in Davis, 2006, p. 4) provides four distinct categories of creativity:

  • Fluid creativity: typical of every human individual and does not require any former preparation

Crystallized creativity: consist of solutions of a problem. This requires some knowledge and skills and lasts longer than fluid creativity. It is still fairly common as it can apply to the task at hand, but may not be considered novel or original outside of that context

  • Mature creativity: requires thorough field-specific knowledge or expertise and happens less frequently. It takes time, from months to years
  • Eminent creativity: leads to fundamental changes within the chosen area. These take considerable time to be developed and to be recognised and judged.

This model is helpful for framing the long-term goals of CAA as they nurture creativity and depth of knowledge in learners over time. But how are these skills brought to fruition? Some argue that creativity cannot be measured or understood, and needs simply to be allowed freedom for it to flourish. However, Laurel (as cited in Davis, 2006, p 4.) argues just the opposite: When a person is asked to "be creative" with no direction or constraints whatever, the result is, according to May, often a sense of powerlessness or even complete paralysis of the imagination. Limitation and constraints that focus creative efforts paradoxically increase our imaginative power by reducing the number of possibilities open to us. Therefore, it is essential to give learners a structure within which they learn the skills demanded by the medium. Furthermore, it could be argued that the artistic road to mastery is first characterized by the acquisition of certain rules and parameters of the art form, followed by the process of exploding those rules. In other words, the artist acquires enough skill to effectively communicate and express their internal world view within a given medium. CAA promotes this constructivist stance, while making sure that the curricular outcomes are met at the same time. In other words, the creative impulses are governed within the boundaries of the art form being explored at the moment as well as by the curricular requirements common for all Alberta schools.

Athans: Analogous Thinking

How can creativity and deep knowledge be developed in an online environment, and be presented in a way that keeps learners engaged and motivated following Keller's (2001) "expectancy of value" theory? More importantly, how can the environment support the learner as the central protagonist in their learning quest? Athans is a learning environment designed to harness creativity within the limits of curricular domain requirements. The first part of the acronym in Athans, Analogous Thinking (AT), is meant to provide the learner with the opportunity to construct their own fantasy world in juxtaposition to how curricular outcomes reflect the "real" world.

It is important again to emphasize that the "real" curricular world from a constructivist stance is simply a collection of interpretations of phenomena as perceived by individual educators. The inner world of the artist is equally a composition of perceptions, no less real than one detailed by curriculum. In fact, these worlds have been described by Csikszentmihalyi (as cited in Davis, 2006, p.4) as "symbolic domains" and are not limited to artistic domains. He expresses how ideas are conveyed symbolically in a variety of human contexts:

The knowledge conveyed by symbols is bundled up in discrete domains geometry, music, religion, legal systems, and so on. Each domain is made up of its own symbolic elements, its own rules, and generally has its own system of notation. The philosophy behind AT is predicated on this concept; by building an original fantasy world and contrasting it with the curricular world, greater understanding of both worlds is gained. In a similar approach to strengthening literacy in second language learners by focusing first on literacy in their first language, the creative literacy of individuals using AT is augmented through the process of contrast. Then, greater understanding of the rules and symbolic elements of a variety of domains can be approached with a sense of confidence. If a learner has created an original music system with its own unique notation, after having delineated differences and similarities to "real" world music, they will have greater confidence when faced with the arcane workings of the legal system. This is a contentious statement, as it implies that the learner has greater creative literacy and subsequent higher confidence, and is able to apply their understanding of symbolic interplay from one domain to another. But is this not one of the primary goals of education?

Analogy is a powerful tool in promoting creative thinking because it allows an individual to combine two or more ideas in new ways. Necka and others (as cited in Davis, 2006, p.4) also identify that there are some aspects of creativity common to different contexts, these include: Use of analogy, making remote associations, redefining a problem at hand, or posing questions. At CAA, where the goal is the development of the artist-scholar, Athans is a tool that promotes creativity through AT. Learners who are approaching the learning of curriculum as separate worlds, or symbolic domains, will be achieving two purposes - further development of their mastery of creative thinking as they order their own symbolic domain and thus develop further skill in this kind of mental processing. Also, through awareness of multiple symbolic domains and the assumptions they operate under, the learner will develop recognition of patterns between them. As they develop their own invented languages, for example, they will be able to see how subject-verb-object patterns exist in real languages, including their own, as well as what kinds of notations are used. Athans: Narrative Structure

Once a world has been created, following Tolkien's method of storytelling, narratives can emerge naturally. The second part of the Athans acronym is Narrative Structure (NS) which furthers several goals of the CAA. The creativity of the learner can be expressed more effectively within boundaries of curriculum, and further enhanced by situating a story within this new symbolic domain of the fantasy world. In other words, the story format allows creativity to emerge in a structured and familiar format, the most simple comprising the beginning, middle, and end.

Bruner (as cited in Callaway, Lee, Lester, Mott, and Zettlemoyer, 1999, p.3) argues that the constituents have no meaning until they are put into a plot. Even though the creation of a fantasy world is in itself engaging and offers an exciting way to explore curriculum, it doesn't take full advantage of learners' innate understanding of narrative structures. By creating a protagonist and situating their struggle in a fantasy world, the boundaries and laws of the world are crystallized through the protagonist's interactions inside it. Suddenly, gaps are filled in to explain character behaviour as the protagonist tests the limits of the world. Also, as the fantasy world is more and more involved, differences and similarities to the curricular world become clearer. Thus, the combination of analogous thinking with narrative structures allows an open-ended yet structured way for learners to interpret new symbolic domains.

Social Learning

A key component of Athans is the opportunity for social learning. Learners will engage in peer review, as concepts from their fantasy worlds are integrated into a public wiki for curricular concepts. From a CAA perspective, this practice would be undertaken using the “two positives and a suggestion for improvement “ approach which will emphasize the strengths of the analogies put forward versus the weaknesses. New knowledge and associations will be created in this environment as learners share how their worlds contrast the curricular one.

Ritualized Community

Another element of social learning that is essential for building confident learner identity is ritual, or rites of passage. When learners are publicly recognized in their community as having completed rites of passage, it acts as a motivational tool for others to achieve while at the same time reinforcing a sense of confidence in the learner. Keller's ARCS model supports this fully, because learners develop an expectancy of success when they view others achieving it. To further support this idea, RSS headlines would be shared within the community of learners to announce when others have reached small as well as major rites of passage. These rites could be viewed as “levels” which are popularly used as what Clark Aldrich () describes as “game elements” to reinforce “pedagogical elements” of certain simulations.

Film Festival and Cascade Mentorship

The last aspect of community that is reinforced in the Athans model is the collaborative one. I have developed the ICT curriculum plan for CAA to learn 21st century technology skills through the creation of documentary films, culminating in an online film festival. The ultimate goal for Athans is to have students collaborating on filmmaking in a way that makes geography irrelevant. Ideally, a learner in New Zealand could compose the soundtrack to a sequence filmed in Calgary. The collaboration involved in filmmaking is ideal for students to use their technological skills in a real and authentic arena requiring strong communication skills. The cascade model of mentorship further crystallizes these skills, as learners who have acquired a certain level of mastery are then able to mentor new users, the “newbie” community. It is a strong value at CAA to practice “belonging”, a value espoused in the Circle of Courage, and cascade mentorship benefits both the mentor and the learner in a symbiotic relationship.

Currency of Talents

The last aspect of community that enters into the Athans model is the idea of having a fictional currency called “Talents” which follows in the neoclassical metaphor of the column and archway. Building on ideas put forward by FilmRiot (see Appendix A), a project developed inthe innovative “crowdsourcing” site, Cambrian House, learners can put funding towards projects they want to see further developed in their community. These “Talents” can also be earned, as learners both complete certain rites of passage and receive funding from other members of the learner community. Reinforced by headlines (similar to Facebook, as shown in Appendix B) describing what others are doing in their community, learners will have the feeling of projects moving ahead and gaining momentum. The underlying goal of having learners become producers of media versus consumers, is that they will develop strong critical thinking skills in questioning what bias and message lies behind the media they are infused with. This is perhaps the most important skill in an advertising-based consumer society.


Many successes have alread taken place in the pedagogical implementation of fantasy worlds, since Ian Grey (2005) first introduced the concept, and I then followed up with at CAA. To take this model to the next level in an online milieu will require analogous delivery of curriculum, narrative structures, ritulized community, and the overarching philosophy of the learner as protagonist. The learner-protagonist model is also reinforced by the introductionin of narrative structures into daily self-reflection. Learners become aware of their personal learning journey as a quest in parallel to the protagonist's story they are creating. By making these associations in daily, reflective journal, they will be able to keep track of their learning quest. Also, instructors can act as drama managers by facilitating their educational narrative, and in this manner maintaining a strong instructor presence. Developing narrative literacy combined with creative literacy in Athans will offer CAA learners an engaging and open-ened portal to online learning. Most importantly, through the ritualized development of a creative and supportive community, learners will be able to collaborate on stories and share them with each other in media-rich formats. They become discriminating producers of media who are able to question the message behind a variety of media, versus blind consumers, and are able to use their most powerful tool on a daily basis – their imagination.

Reference List

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Callaway, C. B., Lee, S. Y., Lester, J. C., Mott, B. W., and Zettlemoyer, L. S. (1999). Towards Narrative-Centered Learning Environments. Retrieved September 16, 2007 from

Callele, M.F. (2004). Screenwriting Education and Assessment Viewed through a Constructivist Lens. Retrieved November 12, 2007 from

Crichton, S. (2002). The Importance of Self and Development of Identity in Learning. Retrieved September 16, 2007 from

Dethridge, L. (2003). Writing Your Screenplay. Australia: Allen and Unwin.

Gray, I. (2006). A World of Fanasy: Creating A World with Imagination. Paper presented at the Alberta Charter School's Association Conference. Edmonton, AB.

Jonassen, D. (1999). Designing constructivist learning environments. In C.M. Reigeluth (Ed.). Instructional-design theories and models (Vol. II): A new paradigm of instructional theory (pp. 215-239). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers.

Keller, J. M. (2001). Development and Use of the ARCS Model of Motivational Design. In D. P. Ely & T. Plomp (Eds.), Classic Writings on Instructional Technology. (pp. 223-238). Libraries Unlimited, Inc.

Lasseter, J., (Producer) and Stanton, A. & Unkrich, L., (Directors). (2003). Finding Nemo [Motion picture]. United States: Walt Disney Productions.

Luckin, R., L. Plowman, D. Laurillard, M. Stratfold, J. Taylor. (1999). Designing multimedia for learning: narrative guidance and narrative construction. Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. Retrieved September 16, 2007 from

Newman, K. (2005). The Case for the Narrative Brain. ACM International Conference Proceeding Series; Vol. 123. Retrieved September 16, 2007 from

Appendix A – FilmRiot and Cambrian House

Appendix B – Facebook use of Headlines