Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Interview: Texas A & M Neuroscientist and Self-Educator Dr. Bill Klemm

Interviewer: Ryan McCarl

Featured self-educator (interviewee): Dr. Bill Klemm

Self-educator’s location: Texas A&M University, College Station, Texas

Date: 15 December 2009

Dr. Bill Klemm calls himself the "memory medic," and the label is emblazoned on the lab coat he wears as he goes about his business as a semi-retired - but quite busy - Professor of Neuroscience at Texas A&M University. Dr. Bill's extraordinary CV, learning and memory blog, and faculty website reveal not only a scholar who is deeply concerned with adding to the sum of scientific knowledge about all things related to the brain, but also an educator who is committed to taking that knowledge and acting on it by sharing his discoveries with others.

WAM: Over the years, your activities have included writing (12 books and countless articles), teaching, mentoring, obtaining over $2 million in grants for your research, speaking at hundreds of engagements, and serving in and then doing research for the Air Force. What are you up to now that you are "semi-retired?" What activities and organizations do you dedicate the most time to these days?

BK: First, I keep up with the memory research literature and am always on the lookout for reports that have practical applications for everyday memory. When I find such publications, I summarize the "take home" lessons in my "Improve Your Learning and Memory" blog. My other main activities include working with school districts and teachers to improve science education and writing books (my current one, being shopped now by an agent, attempts to explain thinking in terms of biology: The Ghost Materializes: How The Brain's Three Minds Think. So much for "retirement!"

WAM: How did all this begin? How did you become so interested in the brain and in learning and memory?

BK: My late wife always said she noticed that many scientists work in areas where they have a personal medical problem. Well.... But I think I picked brain research because it is the ultimate intellectual challenge.

WAM: Your blog on learning and memory is filled with useful tips and strategies for learners. If you could pick out a few "top tips" for Wide Awake Minds readers - for self-educators to use in their own lives and for educators to share with their students - which would you choose? What are the most important things we can do to improve our ability to learn?

BK: 1) Avoid interferences of any kind immediately after the time you are exposed to new information you want to remember (this especially means don't multi-task). Rehearse that information several times (at least) before you move on to something else. 2) Wherever possible convert words or numbers into mental images. 3) Stay healthy, reduce stress, and get enough sleep.

WAM: Your writings about how to improve one's memory and learning ability are aimed, naturally, at those who are inclined to care about their own memory and learning; the people most likely to read your blog and your books are self-educators. But educators working in K-12 settings - and even in undergraduate settings - must constantly confront the question of motivating students. How do we turn students into self-educators? How can we get them to want to learn - both in their school years and throughout their lives? How can we help students overcome what you have termed "mental laziness"?

BK: Motivation is everything when it comes to learning. If you want to learn, you will. Nobody can force learning down your throat without your active support.

WAM: Are there any particular experiences or accomplishments in your life that stand out as particularly meaningful to you, or that had a particularly significant impact on your growth as a scholar, intellectual, educator, and human being?

BK: Most basically, my father was very demanding when I was a child. He expected nothing less than my best, and within certain limitations of being a normal child, I tried to accommodate him. Finally, I realized I needed my own goals and needed to live up to standards that I constructed, many but not all of which were similar to his. In later life, I learned to be more introspective and better at taking responsibility for my weaknesses. This led to my recent book: Blame Game. How To Win It."

WAM: You are currently writing an essay on the effects technological immersion is having on young people. What are your thoughts on that? What role should technology play in K-12 schools? Do you have any advice for parents who are trying to understand and monitor their kids' passion for cell phones, social networking, online gaming, and similar technology?

BK: I wrote an op-ed in the Dallas Morning News and Houston Chronicle pointing out that many modern technologies have the power to seduce youngsters into self-absorption. Once seduced, such children can acquire delusions about their self-importance, a sense of entitlement, a false sense of merit, illusory optimism, disrespect for others, short attention spans, mental laziness, sound-bite thinking, superficial interests, and a big waste of time. I received phone calls and e-mails from older people who thought I was a sage. Youngsters thought I was out of my mind.

WAM: Should adults be concerned about the role of technology in their own lives? It seems to me that the Internet has had both very positive and very negative effects on education, productivity, interpersonal interaction, and social norms. As a neuroscientist who is active both on the web (with a blog and several websites) and in "traditional," community-based organizations such as your local church and many scholarly organizations, I wonder whether you might have particularly interesting insights on these issues.

BK: Technology should always be thought of as a tool. Only use it to the extent it works for you. It is very easy for even adults to get caught up in wasting time with communications technology.

WAM: Thank you, Bill, for your time and for the good work you do.

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