Why Do We Spend So Much Time on Inert Learning in Our Classrooms?

How much time do we spend on inert learning daily in our classrooms?

I’ve been asking that myself a lot lately as we’ve had more and more discussions in my schools and across the country about deeper learning and what our students are learning in schools. I’m watchful of any inert learning happening in classrooms I visit and in my own practice as I work with teachers.

Before we can determine exactly how much time we spend on inert learning, we must define inert learning.

With inert learning, the student learns and remembers facts or procedures without understanding or being able to use them. So, they can regurgitate the information back to you on a test or quiz, but after the fact, they’ve forgotten it and moved on. We can also think about inert learning as surface-level learning.

There are two types of inert learning- declarative and procedural.

Declarative inert learning is when students learn and remember facts without understanding them. For example, rote memorization of vocabulary words without being able to use them in context wouldn’t be considered deeper learning.

Procedural inert learning is when students learn procedures without understanding why or when to use them. A great example of this is students who can solve a math problem one way, but if you ask them to explain how they did it or why that particular method works, they can’t because they don’t understand the concept, they just know the steps to get the answer.

So, how much time are we spending on inert learning in our classrooms?

The answer may depend on what level you teach. To support younger learners, elementary teachers will spend more time on inert learning to empower their students with the knowledge to make deeper connections. In later grades, teachers can more easily move students to deeper learning opportunities, applying that surface-level knowledge to more practical applications.

This is an important shift. Certainly, before any deeper learning can occur, the facts and information from any surface-level learning must be in place. John Hattie speaks about the transition from surface-level learning to deeper learning in this video and how vital both are to students.

As educators, we can consciously make decisions about the content we’re teaching and the instructional methods we use to ensure that our students engage in deeper learning.

Here are some things to consider as you reflect on your own practice:

  • Do my students have opportunities to construct meaning or create something new?
  • Do my students have opportunities to apply their knowledge in authentic ways?
  • Do my students have opportunities to think deeply about their learning content?

If you can answer yes to these questions, then you’re likely doing more than just teaching inert knowledge. Keep up the good work!

Too often, students are taught inert knowledge- facts and procedures without understanding or being able to use them. This type of learning results in surface-level understanding at best and leads students to forget what they learn shortly after the fact.

On the other hand, deeper learning is when students learn and remember facts with understanding. They can use the information they learned in various contexts and see how it connects to other ideas. Deeper learning also allows for critical thinking and creativity.

It’s important for educators to make a conscious effort to move away from teaching inert knowledge and toward deeper learning. We can do this by providing opportunities for our students to construct meaning, apply their knowledge in authentic ways, and think deeply about their learning content. If we do this, we’ll be setting our students up for success in college and beyond.

Can you remember a time in your own educational past when you learned something new, and then, as soon as you took the test, you forgot what it was you learned?

How often does that happen in your classroom with your students?

I don’t want to ask myself that question because I’m afraid of what the answer might be. You might feel the same way. I know how many times it happened to me during my own time walking through the hallowed halls of public K-12 education.

Those facts you forgot, the ones that had no practical application to anything you were doing at the time? That’s inert learning.

Inert knowledge is “learning that was superficially acquired, never really understood, and promptly forgotten” (McTighe & Silver, Harvey F., 2020). Standardized tests are built on inert knowledge. As a matter of fact, most forms of assessment I can think of are specifically designed to measure inert knowledge.

The problem with inert knowledge is that it’s, well, inert. It doesn’t do anything. It can’t be applied to solve problems or create new understanding. It’s just there, taking up space in our heads until we forget it and move on.

On the other hand, deeper learning is learning that sticks with you, that you can apply in different contexts, and that helps you build new understanding.

It’s the kind of learning that allows you to take what you know and use it to solve problems, think creatively, and communicate effectively. Deeper learning is active; inert learning is passive.

There are a few reasons why inert knowledge assessments still exist. For one, they’re easy to grade and don’t require as much engagement from the student as deeper learning assessments. Additionally, inert knowledge is often seen as a precursor to deeper learning, so educators may use these assessments to identify students who need more support to move on to deeper levels of understanding. Finally, there’s a tendency for people (educators and policymakers included) to value things that can be easily measured, like grades or test scores. And because inert knowledge can be assessed fairly easily and objectively, it has become a staple in our educational system.

Now, let’s go back to the question I opened: How much time do we spend on inert learning daily in our classrooms?

Is there a better use of our time?

If you’re looking for more ways to move away from inert learning and toward deeper learning in your classroom, be sure to sign up for my free newsletter. I’ll update you weekly on the latest deeper learning strategies supported by technology integration. I’ll also include links to helpful resources and provide tips for making the most of your teaching time. Sign up now and start moving your classroom in the right direction!


McTighe, J., & Silver, Harvey F. (2020). Teaching for deeper learning: Tools to engage students in meaning making (Kindle). ASCD.