In Conditions of Learning (Gagne 1985), Gagne (informally referred to as the father of instructional technology) has created a masterful book on the principles and theory of learning, as well as prescriptions for designing instruction based on that theory. His book is extremely well-organized, and highly structured. The chapters follow effective conventions and Gagne previews, elaborates on, summarizes, and repeats topics effectively. This book is clearly highly influential- Google Scholar shows that it has been cited over two thousand times.
Rather than comment on this book in its entirety, I will briefly highlight some of the main points of Conditions of Learning and compare it with classic and contemporary literature. I will also attempt to briefly compare some of the prevalent thoughts on learning and instruction and will highlight the changes that have taken place since the writing of this foundational book. Table 1 summarizes some of the key points of Gagne’s Conditions of Learning. Each of these topics will be discussed in greater detail throughout this paper.
Main Points in Conditions of Learning
- Categories of Capabilities- a taxonomy of kinds of learning
- The processes of learning- Behaviorism and Cognitive Information Processing
- Nine Events of Instruction- creating “external events” to engender learning.
Gagne identifies what he calls categories of capabilities (p. 46), comparable to Blooom's taxonomy of educational objectives (Bloom 1956). The rationale is that different kinds of knowledge should be taught in different ways, and should therefore be categorized so that the proper method of instruction can be prescribed. It is clear that Gagne's categories continue to be seen as valid, though other theorists such as Bloom (1956) group Gagne's Intellectual Skills, Cognitive Strategies, and Verbal
Information into the Cognitive Domain.
Processes of Learning: Behaviorism and Information Processing
In addition to categories of capabilities, Gagne identifies two major learning theories or paradigms that influence his prescriptions for designing instruction: Behaviorism, and Information Processing. Gagne identifies Behavioristic “phenomena of learning,” which he calls basic processes of learning. Information Processing is widely known as Cognitive Information Processing (CIP), a view influenced by the metaphor of computers as information processors. Up to the date this book was published, these were the dominant theories in the field. However, since this book was published, Constructivism has had a great influence.
In reflecting on those theories of learning having the greatest influence on the field, Mayer (Mayer 1992) identifies this third influential theory of learning: Constructivism. One can see a correlation between Mayer’s Learning Metaphors and Gagne’s Learning Types. Gagne has identified two of these three, excluding the most recent development of Constructivism. This is likely because the full influence of this theory of learning had not been reached at publication of his book.
Gagne's Learning Types (1985) Mayer's Metaphors for Learning (1992)
Association (chapter 2) = Response Acquisition (Behaviorism)
Information Processing (Chapter 4) = Knowledge Acquisition (CIP)
(Not mentioned) Knowledge Construction = (Constuctivism)
Gagne's Nine Events of Instruction
In addition to reviewing and synthesizing learning theory, Gagne creates instructional prescriptions. Gagne prescribes what he calls Nine Events of Instruction. This process, designed to be used sequentially, corresponds directly to the information processing theory presented in previous sections of the book.
Nine Events of Instruction
- Gain Attention
- Inform Learners of Objectives
- Stimulate Recall of Prior Learning
- Present the Content
- Provide Learning Guidance
- Elicit Performance
- Provide Feedback
- Assess Performance
- Enhance Retention/Transfer to Job
In addition to creating these instructional events, Gagne applies each of these to his categories of learning, showing how each event should be tailored to the content type. The prescriptions for each of the categories are different depending on the desired outcome.
This instructional theory is explicitly linked to learning theory, which gives it credibility. However, I would call this theory “old school,” meaning it keeps a focus on basic kinds of learning. Indeed, even as I read this book, I found myself thinking that the kinds of learning he is prescribing seems to be somewhat contrived, perhaps less-meaningful learning. Current theories call for problem-centered instruction (Merrill 2002) that uses real-world (Merrill 2002) ill-structured problems (Barrows 1996; Jonassen 2000) and tasks (Merrill 2006; Merrill 2007) with the goal to enable students to solve problems and work on real-world tasks, even as a group (Schwartz, Lin et al. 1999). There is an emphasis on the construction of useful, meaningful knowledge, as opposed to the acquisition of prescribed and compartmentalized knowledge. This is certainly a reflection of what has been called the “new paradigm of instruction (Reigeluth 1999),” and appears to be influenced by constructivism.
I find myself quite influenced by the notion of Constructivist learning, specifically those theories concerned with teaching students to solve real-world tasks and problems. After graduating with my bachelor’s degree, the process of moving from life as a student to life as an employee was extremely painful, mainly because I was not sufficiently prepared as to solve real, ill-structured, difficult, complex problems. I believe this is because much of the instruction I received was Gagne-like in nature. I believe that there are some benefits associated with instruction that provides knowledge that can be efficiently acquired and assimilated- specifically, instruction that is more based on CIP that Constructivism, but that knowledge must be effectively based within a context or activity that makes it both useful and accessible in the real world, which means it must be combined with constructivist principles to be effective.
In all, this book was very insightful and seemed to represent the lifetime work of an influential researcher who synthesized massive amounts of knowledge into a systematic review and description of learning theory, a categorization of types of learning, and steps for creating effective instruction. I highly recommend this book, not only to look at the history of instructional technology, but to understand some of the influential theories and principles in instructional technology. In addition, anyone who wishes to gain a sound understanding of instructional design should be exposed to Nine Events of Instruction, which can sever as a good foundation for understanding instructional design and theory.
Barrows, H. S. (1996). "Problem-Based Learning in Medicine and Beyond: A Brief Overview." New Directions for Teaching and Learning 68(Winter): 3-12.
Bloom, B. S. (1956). "Taxonomy of educational objectives: cognitive domain: v. 1."
Gagne, R. (1985). The Conditions of Learning and Theory of Instruction. New York, CBS College Publishing.
Jonassen, D. H. (2000). "Toward a design theory of problem solving." Educational Technology Research and Development 48(4): 63-85.
Mayer, R. H. (1992). "Cognition and Instruction: Their Historic Meeting within Educational Psychology." Journal of Educational Psychology 84(4): 405-12.
Merrill, M. D. (2002). "First principles of instruction." Educational Technology Research and Development 50(3): 43-59.
Merrill, M. D. (2002). "A Pebble-in-the-Pond Model for Instructional Design." Performance Improvement 41(7): 39-44.
Merrill, M. D. (2006). First principles of instruction: a synthesis. Trends and Issues in Instructional Design and Technology, 2nd Edition, Prentice-Hall, Inc.
Merrill, M. D. (2007). "A Task-Centered Instructional Strategy." Journal of Research on Technology in Education 40(1): 5-22.
Reigeluth, C. M. (1999). What is Instructional-Design Theory and How is it Changing? Instructional-Design Theories and Models: A New Paradigm of Instructional Theory. C. M. Reigeluth. 2: 5-29.
Schwartz, D. L., X. Lin, et al. (1999). Toward the Development of Flexibly Adaptive Instructional Designs. Instructional-Design Theories and Models: A New Paradigm of Instructional Theory. C. M. Reigeluth. Mahwah, NJ, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc. 2: 183-213.