Teachers Change Students’ Brains – How Amazing, says Dr Martha Burns

Picture of Peter Barnes
Peter Barnes
Brain Science, Learning Capacity

Dr Martha Burns"You change brains," Dr Burns, adjunct professor at Northwestern University, Chicago told a conference of 400 teachers in Louisiana, USA this week.

Dr Burns was the guest speaker at day two of the Summer Institute, a four-day professional development conference for educators.

She focused on the science of learning and brain research, a topic she knows well. She has authored more than 100 journal articles on the neuroscience of language and communication.

"Neuroscience can help all educators. As teachers, an understanding of this science helps us to do our jobs more effectively and more efficiently," she said.

Dr Burns explained that teachers are changing their students' brains "every single day of the week" because parts of their brains develop and grow with use. So each time students work a maths problem or learn vocabulary words, their myelin — material that covers fibre tracts in the brain — increases.

"Every time you ask a student to do a practice problem, you are building myelin," Burns said. "You are making these fibre tracts more and more efficient. Teachers also create new connections in the brain”.

“That’s an amazing and wonderful thing that teachers do, and all teachers should be proud that they actually change their students’ brains”, said Dr Burns.

Every time a student learns something new, a new connection is formed and becomes permanent after use over a few days. Mature connections of nodes in the brain are required for students to learn to read, Dr Burns said.

"You don't teach quadratic equations because someone is going to solve quadratic equations for the next 20 years," she said. "You teach quadratic equations to teach the joy in solving problems."

She emphasised the importance of educators in student success and described how teachers’ daily classroom activities drive the production of neurochemicals in their students’ brains that are essential for effective learning.