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Ray Land

Learning on a Heroic Scale: Threshold Concepts, Hollywood and the Greatest Story Ever Told

Ray Land
Professor of Higher Education
Durham University
Director of Durham’s Centre for Academic Practice


Over the last decade and a half the Threshold Concepts Framework has generated a considerable corpus of research and scholarship from over 1045 scholars in 45 countries (Flanagan, 2016).  Users of the framework often comment on its resonance with their own experience.   This paper attempts to account for this resonance by demonstrating the framework’s close correspondence to a pattern of narrative that is repeated in endlessly differing forms in myth, religious ritual, drama, storytelling, modern cinema and psychological development.  The paper draws on comparative mythology, comparative religion and Jungian archetypes to analyse the various stages of this narrative, commonly known as The Hero’s Journey (Campbell 1949) or its feminist critique and reworking The Heroine’s Journey (Murdock 1990, Frankel 2010). 

This archetypal narrative involves, amongst other structural elements, a ‘call to adventure’ and a descent from the ordinary world into a liminal ‘special world’ involving threshold crossings, a ‘road of trials’, the overcoming of fear and personal transformation. Archetypal figures encountered en route include shadows, mentors, allies, heralds, threshold guardians, shapeshifters and tricksters.  Known as the ‘monomyth’ this pattern informs ancient tales from Osiris, Prometheus, the Buddha and Moses, to the Odyssey and Arthurian Legend, as well as more modern literary representations from Ulysses to Harry Potter. It underlies modern cinema from Hitchcock and Kubrick to Lucas, Spielberg and Tarantino as well as comics (Sandman) and digital gaming (Journey for Play Station 3).

This paper will explore these correspondences to gain better insights into the learner’s journey, and, as ‘mentors, allies, and heralds’, provide appropriate practical support for our students’ ‘road of trials’, or, as Campbell (2004) characterised it, ‘the heroic journey of our own lives’.


Campbell, J. (1949) The Hero With a Thousand Faces. New York: Pantheon Books (3rd Edition, 1961).

Campbell, J. (2004) Pathways to Bliss: Mythology and Personal Transformation.  Edited by David Kudler. Novato, CA: New World Library.

Flanagan, M. (2016) Threshold Concepts: Undergraduate Teaching, Postgraduate Training and Professional Development: A short introduction and bibliography.  London: UCL. http://www.ee.ucl.ac.uk/~mflanaga/thresholds.html.

Frankel, V.E. (2010) From Girl to Goddess: The Heroine's Journey Through Myth and Legend. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co.

Murdock, M. (1990) The Heroine's Journey: Woman's Quest for Wholeness. Boston, MA: Shambhala Publications.

Vogler, C.(2007) The Writer's Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers. 3rd Edn. Studio City, CA: Michael Wiese Productions. 


Ray Land is Professor of Higher Education at Durham University and Director of Durham’s Centre for Academic Practice.  He previously held similar positions at the Universities of Strathclyde, Coventry and Edinburgh. He has been a higher education consultant for the OECD and the European Commission (EC) and has recently been involved in two EC projects in Europe and Latin America.  He is currently advisor to the Norwegian TRANSark project on architectural education.  He has published widely in the field of educational research, including works on educational development, learning technology and quality enhancement.  He is best known for his theory (with Jan Meyer) of Threshold Concepts and Troublesome Knowledge.  His latest publications with George Gordon have been Enhancing Quality in Higher Education: International Perspectives (Routledge 2013) and Teaching Excellence Initiatives: modalities and operational factors (HEA 2015). A recent edited book, Threshold Concepts in Practice (Sense 2016) is the fourth in a tetralogy on this theme. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts and a Principal Fellow of the Higher Education Academy.  His home is in Edinburgh, Scotland.