The Lamp

A Holderness School journal committed to critical reflection and fostering conversation around issues connected to independent schools and education in general.

Making Knowledge Stick: A Day with Dr. Kevin Mattingly

Peter Durnan, Academic Dean

After exams, after Commencement, after the often heart-rending goodbyes with seniors and the exhausting mucking of dorms, the writing of comments and posting of grades, the faculty at Holderness takes a deep breath and dives into end-of-year meetings.  They are grueling and essential.  This year, as usual, meetings focused on discussions of each student returning next year.  This commitment to the student community is not unique, but it is rare among schools like ours.  People matter at Holderness, and the discussion of each student is sacrosanct.  Imagine, then, the thought of adding further days of meetings.  That’s exactly what happened this year: the administration decided that we would give the discussion of students the lengthy time it deserves, and then reconvene after a weekend to engage in necessary professional development and meetings that would serve to question and ultimately strengthen our programs.


The first of these professional development days was led by Dr. Kevin Mattingly.  Kevin is at the forefront of pedagogy in the independent school world, and it came as no surprise to learn that he is an old friend and old teaching colleague of Head of School Phil Peck from their time together at Columbia's Klingenstein Center.

Dr. Kevin Mattingly speaks with John Lin, Marilee Lin, and Sarah Barton following a full day of presentations. This photo was originally posted as a   Head's Photo  .

Dr. Kevin Mattingly speaks with John Lin, Marilee Lin, and Sarah Barton following a full day of presentations. This photo was originally posted as a Head's Photo.

Our day with Kevin was revelatory, engaging, inspiring, and rewarding. He reminded us of lessons we already know ("Our kids are not getting the sleep they need to truly learn their lessons”); he chided us for reinforcing lessons that are simply wrong (“Reviewing the text and rereading notes taken in class is especially inefficient as a study technique”); he called us out (“We’re all assigning too much homework without understanding the goal of homework”).  It was magnificent and it was difficult.  We are not quite ready for the revolution to which Kevin calls us, but the lessons he imparted during what felt like a very quick day were momentous.


Kevin has read extensively in research addressing all sorts of learning. He shared with us ominous data about the increasing disparity between students of lower and higher income families. 

He reviewed the findings of educational researcher Grant Wiggins - also a thinker Phil Peck has pointed us toward for decades - and the value of backwards planning.  He reinforced Carol Dweck’s essential point that a “growth mindset” allows all students the best chance at productive and continued learning.  But for many of us, his most powerful and useful lessons came in his discussion of memory.


Throughout the day Kevin tested us with memory games and challenges, moments that reinforced the differences between “working” and long-term memory.  He reminded us that many of the behaviors we allow and even encourage in our students – behaviors like cramming for exams – were demonstrably counterproductive.  With each new challenge and game, he made clear the role of working memory as an avenue toward true and lasting understanding.  He had assigned reading from the book Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning (Brown, McDaniel, and Roedinger), and he returned to the analogy of “stickiness” of memory often.

Above all, Kevin pointed out, we need to teach our students the counter-intuitive reality that review, as we normally think of it, is extremely less effective as a means of achieving long-term understanding, than is “retrieval practice.”  This method requires students to put away books and work directly from their working memories, calling up the things they remember as important.  As seen in the below table, retrieval practice, the act of calling up information, serves to strengthen memory and understanding.


This brief summary does but a cursory job of imparting the lessons we learned from Kevin.  But I can attest to the power of the lesson.  I have just returned from two weeks as a question leader at the grading of this year’s AP English Language and Composition exams.  A couple of days into the reading I asked the teachers scoring the first question to attempt to replicate the scoring guide (our essential guiding document) from memory.  They balked a little at first, but the activity became a topic of lively discussion.  Ultimately, by calling to mind a document they thought they knew well, they learned its contents better and forged clearer and more powerful memories and understanding.


Thanks to Kevin for an inspiring and beneficial day of professional development.

The below readings were distributed prior to Kevin's presentation to the faculty at Holderness School.  Please follow the links to read more.

Selected readings from Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning (Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger III, Mark A. McDaniel)

 Addressing Achievement Gaps with Psychological Interventions (David Yeager, Gregory Walton, Geoffrey L. Cohen)

In addition to Make it Stick and the Yeager et al. article, Kevin recommended several other readings: