Surface learning, deep learning and neuroplasticity in modern learning

William E Hamilton@Iman Fiqrie
CPLP, PhD Candidate University of the Rockies

Neurons in learning theory

Neurons, Flickr Creative Commons Retrieved 8 Oct, 2018

Exciting News in Learning Today

I’m extremely excited to be writing about a topic as exciting and important as deep learning, and doubly excited to be writing it alongside the equally important topic of neuroplasticity. Let’s not forget about surface learning either.

First off, I’m sure you’ve all heard the saying that if you always do what you’ve always done—you’ll always get what you’ve always got. For example, the way many courses are created today. The way courses and instruction’s done today isn’t far from the way it’s always been done—understand some behavior we want to mimic or change, create some knowledge, skills and attitudes (KSAs) around it, find some content about that behavior to match or demonstrate it, give some formative and summative assessments to see if the learner can recall back the information on-demand. That’s pretty much surface learning in a nutshell. This may be required for some criterion-based courses and institutions, e.g., national standards in education, maritime, aviation, etc.

Higher Order Thinking Skills and Bloom’s Taxonomy

I would venture to say, however, that in many institutions of learning today, deep learning is what we really want. Deep learning in education is about activating high-order thinking skills; learner-centered versus teacher-centered, pedagogical or traditional teaching methods. If you’re familiar with Bloom’s Taxonomy, a taxonomy guide that instructional designers often use to help create great objective statements, then higher-order thinking would be the ability to analyze, evaluate, synthesize and/or create. One must not only be available to describe, list, remember or understand, but take that content, resource or activity and analyze, evaluate, and create from it—with minimal help or scaffolds from the teacher or facilitator. This is where real innovation and creativity comes from.


Brain stimulation from

Higher Order Thinking Fires Neurons and Memory

How neuroplasticity fits into all of this is simple, there are billions of neurons in the brain that play a significant role in the formation and storage of memory. This goes directly to the topic of working and long-term memory. Recall Robert Gagne’s 9 Events of Instruction was about the sequencing of instruction to activate long-term memory and neuro processes. It’s a bit more complicated than that, however, when synapse fire they strengthen the connection between neurons and pathways. It is also thought that by activating higher-order thinking skills—that this process of strengthening neural pathways and connections, and thus memory, can be encouraged or created (new connections); thus the term neuroplasticity or brain plasticity, which means “…the ability of the brain to change throughout an individual’s life…function can be transferred to a different location…the portion of the grey matter can change, synapse may strengthen or weaken over time” (Wikipedia). What this really means is that it’s possible for those not born with innate super brain powers to also develop brain power or the capability to process higher-order information into long-term memory. In laymen’s term, become smarter over time.

Putting it All Together From Analysis to Design and More

If we put all this together in an instructional design plan that includes theories and models, it would be using what’s called constructivist theory and a constructivist instructional model. How does it work? One would go through the systematic process of performance improvement and analysis, e.g., use of the analysis, design, development, implementation and evaluation (ADDIE) model and come up with some enabling and terminal objectives, formative and summative assessments, but instead of using them in the traditional systems approach and performance outcomes way—create activities and problem-based learning scenarios and activities with resources and support to fire these neurons through higher-over thinking; both soft and hard scaffolds may be required, but no directed goals (outcomes) are given; goal-free objectives (an activity with a rubric is ok). The enabling objectives are translated into the activity, the assessment or outcomes are in the form of a rubric of higher Bloom Taxonomies, and terminal objectives can be assessed through the rubric from discussions, assignments and reflection journals.

Digital Brains,Higher Order Thinking, and Neuroplasticity is Here

In the traditional way, instruction is usually setup for the average learner. Utilizing the learner-centered and constructivist method—those who fire more neurons get more, i.e., put in the extra work, those who put in average or minimal work also get what they put in. This should be the way education in the future is done. There are some schools in the U.S. that have digital brains in the classroom that can assess such things and move learners into different groups and clusters for deep learning. Some of these digital classrooms have more and not less teachers to help facilitate this process. So, in this case technology increased jobs!


It might seem a bit harsh to suggest that we leave behind those who only want or can-do average work, but it should equally troublesome to hold back those who can do more. With digital brains in the classroom or not, with deep learning and neuroplasticity, surface learning may soon become a thing of the past. Maybe then in the maritime industry we can finally stop pollution, create low-carbon emission alternatives, solve climate change, global warming, alternative energy concerns and a host of other very troubling concerns that need solutions. So fire up some neurons today!



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