Rob Dominguez

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Mental Models from Breath of the Wild

Monday, November 8, 2021 at 8:45 PM

Seriously, a video game?

Seriously, a video game. This shouldn't come as any shock; video games have long been touted as terrific analogues for learning. Why?

  • Quick (really, instantaneous) feedback loops for players (learners)
  • Relatively forgiving...if you die, try again (mastery)
  • Varying degrees of difficulty (differentiated instruction)
  • In the case of a game like Zelda: Breath of the Wild (BOTW), an open-world setting for exploration and player choice (agency)

All of those benefits aside, there's another reason I settled on this model to articulate what I've learned about these more constructivist approaches to student learning. Notably, in BOTW, there's an in-game map that must be progressively unlocked in order for the player to have a complete picture of where they are in the larger scheme of the world and how all of the different regions fit together.


While the map above is complete, each section is only unlocked after climbing a tower (not always an easy task) and connecting an ancient tablet. Until this is completed within each region, the player can explore that area, but without any context or understanding of where they are or how the region connects to those around it. Points of interest within the region may become visible on the map, but their surroundings remain a mystery.


For me, this is an excellent example of the role of metacognition. Metacognition is simply one's own awareness of their thoughts and, in the context of education, how one learns and organizes information. It's taking a step back and thinking about knowledge in more abstract ways so as to better understand the relationships and the meaning of information. Without a clear mechanism for organizing and structuring this knowledge, a student may be "present" in the material, but have no clue as to how it connects with the broader breadth (see what I did there?!) of their learning.

Interdisciplinary Learning

This analogy could work within the context of a single content area, but it really shines when imagining the relationships and connections between disciplines. In the course of my colleagues' and my research, we identified a series of pathways by which one can create interdisciplinary opportunities within classes. These range from relatively noninvasive, to incredibly multi-faceted and collaborative endeavors. Regardless of the approach, several constants are present:

  • Interdisciplinary teaching is defined as an examination of themes, issues, questions, and topics in such a way that enables students to contextualize and organize their learning and to give it meaning.
  • The organizational cornerstones of this approach are focused on the use of themes, issues, questions, and topics. By organizing a course’s structure to emphasize these higher-order concepts that aren’t constrained to a single discipline, a teacher is constructing an environment that mimics the real world while breaking down the figurative walls that envelop their curriculum.
  • While one can acknowledge that an abundance of knowledge is potentially a powerful thing, its actualized value is a function of how well it’s organized. By creating interdisciplinary activities, lessons, units, and – by extension – courses, educators are modelling the ‘messiness’ and overlap present in real-world problem solving. Enabling young learners to see their education as a pathway to construct their own mental model of the world is a direct result of interdisciplinary practices.

Application In the Classroom

The question remains: how would this look in a classroom environment? There's no neat and tidy answer, but the key points above are a great starting point. In fact, that's where we're beginning our work for the second quarter of the year. Each member of our research group will select a pathway along our continuum and being constructing an interdisciplinary activity, lesson, or project for delivery during third quarter. Regardless of the content area or grade level, everyone's chief focus is on helping students unlock different regions of their own maps and to better understand how their knowledge fits together.