Inert Knowledge

Alfred North Whitehead was a British philosopher and mathematician who worked in the early decades of the 20th century. He is best-remembered among educators by an essay entitled “The Aims of Education” in which he introduced the idea of inert learning. He criticized schools that focused on teaching in a manner that developed “’inert ideas’—that is to say, ideas that are merely received into the mind without being utilized, or tested, or thrown into fresh combinations” (Whitehead, 1957, p. 1). 

Many teachers, including those who are veterans and most who teach without any learning, proceed form the position that they must teach information first. “How can they use the information,” they reason, “until they know it?” Whitehead would respond, “The mind is never passive…. You cannot postpone its life until you have sharpened it” (1929/ 1967, p. 6). What we understand, as well, is that information as it is not a useful concept when we consider learning.

While one may attend class, have the information faculty intend transferred into one’s mind (perhaps from listening to the teacher speak, perhaps reading from the textbook, perhaps from some other activity), and be able to retrieve the information to successfully answer questions on the teacher’s test; the students may not be able to use the information otherwise. Students who successfully pass such tests, Whitehead concludes, demonstrates inert knowledge. Ostensibly, they “know,” but they are largely unable to use that knowledge to solve new problems and they cannot build new knowledge upon this inert knowledge.


Whitehead, A. (1929/ 1967). The Aims of Education and Other Essays. The Free Press.