Gagné's theory of the conditions of learning - part learning theory, part theory of instructional design - underwent significant changes during the twenty years following its original publication. Largely behaviorist in orientation when first introduced in 1965, it became more cognitivist in orientation by its fourth printing in 1985. Gagné's theory was comprehensive, and included a taxonomy of learning outcomes, and an outline of the internal conditions necessary for learning (e.g. cognitive information processing stages), as well as an outline of the corresponding external conditions - or events of instruction - that best support learning. Gagné's contributions were unprecedented, and helped move the fields of education and psychology forward to their present states.
Keywords Attitudes; Cognitive Strategies; Conditions of Learning; Events of Instruction; Gagné, Robert; Intellectual Skills; Instructional Design; Motor Skills; Verbal Information
Educational Theory: Gagne's Conditions of Learning
In a career than spanned over forty years, American psychologist Robert M. Gagné wrote numerous books and hundreds of articles about teaching and learning. The second half of the twentieth century was a volatile time in his field; psychology shifted from an almost exclusive focus on behavior to a nearly equally exclusive focus on cognition. Gagné's own work mirrored such shifts.
The name of Gagné's theory - the conditions of learning - is somewhat misleading. Although it does address the conditions of learning, the theory encompasses far more; in order to determine the optimal ingredients for learning, Gagné reasoned, one must first determine what is to be learned. He aimed to "identify the general types of human capabilities that are learned," and then give an account of "the conditions that govern the occurrence of learning and remembering" (Gagné, 1985, p. 15). Thus his theory provides a taxonomy of outcomes as well as guidelines for instruction. Before we turn to the specifics of the theory, however, it is important to pause for several important points of emphasis.
Gagné began his career as the field of psychology poised itself for what many refer to as a paradigm shift. Largely behaviorist in orientation when Gagné himself was in school, psychology soon turned its attention to what was inside the "black box." Again, Gagné's student Tuckman (1996) reflects: "When you really think about it, you can see that he stood at the crossroads of psychology. He had been trained in [behaviorism], indeed had even developed a runway on which to test rats for his own dissertation, and was now drawn inextricably toward the light of what he called nonreproductive learning" (p. 15). Driscoll (2000) echoes this sentiment when she explains that "Gagné's conditions for learning has undergone development and revision for twenty or more years. With behaviorist roots, it now brings together a cognitive information-processing perspective on learning" (p. 345).
The shift from behaviorism to cognitivism brought with it another shift as well. Psychology moved away from its attempts to find the 'holy grail' of learning - a single theory that would explain all human learning - towards an understanding of the variety and complexity that personal growth entails. Gagné was one of the first to recognize the futility of "efforts to force-fit all learning into a single description" (Gredler, 2005, p. 160). Gredler (2005), in describing Gagné's approach, writes, "The human capacity for learning makes possible an almost infinite variety of behavioral patterns. Given this diversity, no one set of characteristics can account for such vivid activities as learning to define a word, to write an essay, or to lace a shoe. Therefore, the task for learning theory is to identify a set of principles that accommodates both the complexity and variety of human learning" (p. 160).
Thus far, Gagné's theory has been described as a learning theory. And yet Gagné is considered to be one of the forefathers of instructional design; in other words, he is as much a practitioner of teaching as he is a theorist of learning. However, the distinction itself may be somewhat artificial and unnecessary. In 1969 Gagné wrote, "Much of the work designed to investigate the phenomena of human learning may be thought of as having its ultimate applicability in the design of effective conditions for instruction. In some general sense, it would be truly difficult to distinguish the psychology of instruction from the psychology of learning" (p. 381). What he noted, however, was that many theories of learning were difficult to apply in practice; much of his work was devoted to developing a theory that could be easily applied.
In the end, Gagné's ability to bridge the gap between learning theory and instruction may be one of his greatest and most remembered contributions. He began his career during World War II, helping the military train pilots for combat; from the beginning, the questions he asked about teaching and learning had real-world applications and consequences. As Gredler (2005) explains "prior learning theorists developed explanations of the learning process in the laboratory and extended the findings to the human situation" (p. 192) Robert Gagné, in contrast, began by observing the range of skills humans demonstrated in real life, and then determined the conditions that would best support the various types of skill development. In other words, Gagné moved educational research into the classroom and out of the laboratory. He and colleagues criticized laboratory research, noting that "the findings of many studies of human learning presently cannot be applied directly to instructional design for two major reasons: a) the conditions under which the learning is investigated…are often unrepresentative of conditions under which most human learning occurs; and b) the tasks set for the learner…appear to cover a range from the merely peculiar to the downright esoteric" (Gagné & Rohwer, 1969, p. 381).
Taxonomy of Learning Outcomes
An introduction to Gagné' theory should perhaps start with an obvious question. How did Gagné define learning? First and foremost, Gagné differed from developmental psychologists who attributed many changes in behavior to maturation or growth. For Gagné, learning itself was largely responsible for an individual's development (Gredler, 2005). Gagné also believed learning was cumulative and incremental; that is, an individual develops complex skills by building upon previously learned simple skills. Finally, Gagné believed learning resulted in a variety of different behaviors he called capabilities. The first step in his attempt to develop a comprehensive learning theory was to define all such capabilities.
Others before him had also attempted to catalog types of learning into different domains. Most notably, Benjamin Bloom and his colleagues developed a taxonomy of the cognitive domain, which others then followed with taxonomies of the affective and psychomotor domains (Driscoll, 2000). What made Gagné's taxonomy distinct, however, was that he was "the first to propose an integrated taxonomy of learning outcomes that included all three domains" (Driscoll, 2000). Three components of Gagné's taxonomy - verbal information, intellectual skills, and cognitive strategies - correspond to the cognitive domain, while attitudes and motor skills map to the affective and psychomotor domain, respectively. The following provides a brief description of each.
Gagné referred to verbal information as "one of the most familiar categories of learned capabilities" (1985, p. 154). Consisting of names, facts, dates, and other organized knowledge, verbal information is also known as declarative knowledge. Being able to name Albany as the capital of New York, recite a poem, or identify the date WWII ended are all examples of verbal information. Because verbal information is more easily and naturally acquired than other types of capabilities, "it is not uncommon to hear disparaging statements about 'facts' or 'mere verbal knowledge' among teachers," Gagné noted. But verbal information is important, he argued, because, since we use facts in our everyday lives, it provides the foundation for other kinds of learning, and is "a vehicle for thought" (Gagné, 1985, p. 175).
When an individual interacts with her environment through the use of symbols, she is demonstrating intellectual skill. Most formal instruction, Gagné argues, addresses the development of intellectual skill, the most typical type of which is the development of rule-governed behavior. Someone who is using a saw to cut a board is interacting directly with her environment, but the measurement she took before cutting the board required the manipulation of symbols (e.g. representing length in inches and centimeters) as well as the use of rules (e.g. subtraction of fractions). Gagné suggests four different subcategories of rules - concepts, discriminations, higher-order rules, and procedural rules.
Cognitive strategies are defined as "skills by means of which learners regulate their own internal processes of attending, learning, remembering, and thinking" (Gagné, 1985, p. 55). Many before Gagné - behaviorists and cognitivists alike - studied such processes, referring to them by various names like self-management behaviors and executive control processes. Today, psychologists most often refer to thinking about our own thinking as metacognition. Cognitive strategies typically vary by person, but Gagné believed some were better than others. He wrote, "The strategies that some people possess appear to be better than those of others…how to bring about improvement in cognitive strategies, so that every learner is 'working up to potential' is one...
(The entire section is 4348 words.)