When Learning Is Inert

We have all experienced the change in our brains we call learning. We become capable of remembering information, performing actions, recognizing patterns, appreciating observations, asking questions, and otherwise interacting with ideas, tools, and people in a way we could not previously. Becoming aware of and evaluating our capabilities is learning as well. The many processes mentioned in this paragraph can be labeled cognition, and learning is about improving our cognitive abilities.  

Some educators and some students may find the Standard Model of Education fits their concept of what teaching and learning should be and they may be quite successful within it. Students may be able to accept the information being presented with efficiency and they may be able to recall it reliably on tests and score well. That type of learning may not serve the students well after they leave school, however. Alfred North Whitehead was a British philosopher and mathematician who worked in the early decades of the 20th century. 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). Much of the instruction that happens in classrooms aligned with the Standard Model of Education will result in what Whitehead characterizes as inert knowledge.  

Inert knowledge can be understood as knowledge that is meaningful only within the classroom. Whatever is learned is relevant only to problems and situations framed and solved in the context of the class and within the boundaries of the class. Many teachers defend this approach to education from the position that they must teach information first. “How can students 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” (1957, p. 6). When learning is assumed to be the transfer of information, we approach students minds as passive, and passive minds do not learn.  


Whitehead, A. (1957). The aims of education and other essays. The Free Press.