Inert ideas

Model summary: An inert idea is an idea that exists in someone’s mind without being used.

In training a child to activity of thought, above all things we must beware of what I will call “inert ideas” — that is to say, ideas that are merely received into the mind without being utilised, or tested, or thrown into fresh combinations.

Alfred North Whitehead, The Aims of Education

It is useful to think of minds in terms of how inert or active the ideas they hold are. This applies to both adults and children. Are the ideas being used? Combined? Expanded? Questioned? Replaced when better ones come along? Ideas that remain inert are useless. The effort it took to put them into the mind was for naught. Worse, learning too many inert ideas can make you question the value of study and practice.

So are we filling our minds with useful ideas? Are we pointing them to good problems? Are we keeping our minds active?

Let the main ideas which are introduced into a child’s education be few and important, and let them be thrown into every combination possible. The child should make them his own and should understand their application here and now in the circumstances of his actual life. … The solution which I am urging, is to eradicate the fatal disconnection of subjects which kills the vitality of our modern curriculum. There is only one subject-matter for education, and that is Life in all its manifestations.

Alfred North Whitehead, The Aims of Education

This is another perspective on why good practice matters. Education should be useful and it’s not useful unless you do something with it.

All practical teachers know that education is a patient process of the mastery of details, minute by minute, hour by hour, day by day. There is no royal road to learning through an airy path of brilliant generalisations.

I am not contemplating one beautiful lecture stimulating, once and for all, an admiring class. That is not the way in which education proceeds. No; all the time the pupils are hard at work solving examples, drawing graphs, and making experiments, until they have a thorough hold on the whole subject.

Alfred North Whitehead, The Aims of Education


Alfred North Whitehead, The Aims of Education (New York: The Free Press, )