Robert Gagne's theory of instruction has provided a great number of valuable ideas to instructional designers, trainers, and teachers. But is it really useful to everyone at all times? During this paper, I will assume the position of a teacher educator (something I have done formally for several years now) while examining the strengths and weaknesses of Gagne's theory of instruction. Driscoll (1994) breaks Gagne's theory into three major areas - the taxonomy of learning outcomes, the conditions of learning, and the events of instruction. I will focus on each of these three areas while briefly describing the theory of instruction. Once this brief introduction of the theory is completed, I will attempt to turn this theory "back upon itself" while examining the strengths and weaknesses of it's various assumptions.
As previously explained Gagne's theory of instruction is commonly broken into three areas. The first of these areas that I will discuss is the taxonomy of learning outcomes. Gagne's taxonomy of learning outcomes is somewhat similar to Bloom's taxonomies of cognitive, affective, and psychomotor outcomes (some of these taxonomies were proposed by Bloom, but actually completed by others). Both Bloom and Gagne believed that it was important to break down humans' learned capabilities into categories or domains. Gagne's taxonomy consists of five categories of learning outcomes - verbal information, intellectual skills, cognitive strategies, attitudes, and motor skills. Gagne, Briggs, and Wager (1992) explain that each of the categories leads to a different class of human performance.
Essential to Gagne's ideas of instruction are what he calls "conditions of learning." He breaks these down into internal and external conditions. The internal conditions deal with previously learned capabilities of the learner. Or in other words, what the learner knows prior to the instruction. The external conditions deal with the stimuli (a purely behaviorist term) that is presented externally to the learner. For example, what instruction is provided to the learner.
To tie Gagne's theory of instruction together, he formulated nine events of instruction. When followed, these events are intended to promote the transfer of knowledge or information from perception through the stages of memory. Gagne bases his events of instruction on the cognitive information processing learning theory.
The way Gagne's theory is put into practice is as follows. First of all, the instructor determines the objectives of the instruction. These objectives must then be categorized into one of the five domains of learning outcomes. Each of the objectives must be stated in performance terms using one of the standard verbs (i.e. states, discriminates, classifies, etc.) associated with the particular learning outcome. The instructor then uses the conditions of learning for the particular learning outcome to determine the conditions necessary for learning. And finally, the events of instruction necessary to promote the internal process of learning are chosen and put into the lesson plan. The events in essence become the framework for the lesson plan or steps of instruction.
Strengths and Weaknesses of the Theory and it's Assumptions
As a teacher educator who has employed Gagne's theory into real life, I have some unique insights into the strengths and weaknesses of the theory and it's assumptions. I will again structure my comments following the three areas of the theory as described by Driscoll (1994). I will first examine the domains of learning outcomes. As a teacher the domains of learning have helped me to better organize my thoughts and the objectives of the instructional lesson. This proved to be very beneficial to me as a teacher, because I was always looking for a good way to put more structure into the objectives of my lesson plans. Additionally, the domains of learning helped me to better understand what types of learning I was expecting to see from my students.
One of the greatest weakness that I experienced with Gagne's theory was taking the goals I had for my students, putting them into the correct learning outcome category, and then creating objectives using Gagne's standard verbs. I would like to break this problem into two parts. First, as I began to use the theory, it quickly became apparent that some goals were easy to classify into the learning outcome categories, but that many were not as easy to categorize. As a teacher, I spent a great deal of time reading and studying Gagne's categories in an attempt to better understand how certain goals fit in the different categories. This was good in the sense that it forced me to really understand what I wanted my students to do. But, on the other hand, it always caused me a great deal of uneasiness about whether or not I was fouling up the whole process by putting the goal into the wrong learning outcome category.
The second half of this weakness has to do with creating objectives using Gagne's standard verbs. After the experience with categorizing the goal into the proper learning outcome, I was faced with changing my goal into a performance objective using one of the standard verbs. This always bothered me as a teacher because I felt like I couldn't always force my objectives into the form that the theory needed. I do believe that writing down objectives is very important, but the standard verbs made the process so rigid that I felt like I was filling in the blanks. I always felt like I had no creativity in writing the objectives - I felt pigeonholed. Along with this feeling came the fact that all objectives had to be written in performance terms. This also made me feel a little uneasy because I felt that some of the overriding objectives I had for my students could not be expressed in performance terms. This objectives were more process oriented than product oriented. It was always very difficult to put these processes into performance terms using the standard verbs.
As a teacher educator I found that the conditions of learning proposed by Gagne were very beneficial. I saw them as guidelines to follow. I didn't take them to be algorithmic in nature but more heuristic. They seemed to make logical sense and in fact I think they helped me better structure my lesson plans and my teaching. Once again however, even though I viewed the conditions as heuristics, I did feel that I was somewhat of a robot carrying out commands. I always felt as though I was being driven by the conditions.
This leads directly to a discussion of the events of instruction. I felt that the events of instruction really helped me the most as a teacher. The events gave me the skeleton on which I could hang my lesson. The events not only provided me with a road map to follow, but also a way to look at my lesson plans in a more holistic nature. I was able to see how the parts of the lesson fit together to achieve the ultimate goal.
This part of Gagne's theory seemed to be the least rigid to me because you did not have to follow it as rigorously as other parts of the theory. For example, Gagne explains that most lessons should follow the sequence of the events of instruction, but that the order is not absolute. While I appreciated the fact that this was less rigid than other parts of the theory, I always had one important question. If the events of instruction follow the cognitive learning process, then why would it be advisable to change the sequence of the events or to leave events out? Wouldn't this have a great impact of the learning process? Would learning still take place?
This leads me to the learning theory upon which Gagne bases his instructional theory. As a teacher early in my career who was very enamored with computers, cognitive information processing theory seemed like a great explanation of the learning process (I am not sure I still feel the same way). However, those who do not understand or agree with cognitive information processing theory might not feel the same. For those people, I believe that Gagne's theory might not work very well for them.
In conclusion, I would like to summarize the points I have tried to cover in this paper. First of all, Gagne's theory does provide a great deal of valuable information to teachers like myself. I believe it is mostly appealing to those teachers who may be early in their teaching careers and are in need of structure for their lesson plans and a holistic view of their teaching. The theory is very systematic and rigid at most points. It is almost like a cookbook recipe to ensure successful teaching and ultimately learning by the students. However, the systematic nature of the theory may be a turn-off for many teachers, particularly those who like to be creative, don't like rigidity, and who don't believe in a cookbook approach to ensure learning.
An additional point to cover is that the theory is not always easy to implement. I am sure I am not alone in my feeling that many times it is difficult to take the goals I had for my students, put them into the correct learning outcome category, and then create objectives using Gagne's standard verbs.
The final point I would like to cover deals with the learning theory upon which Gagne bases his theory. First of all, if the events of instruction really match up with the learning process, then I do not believe it would be advisable to change the sequence of the events or to leave certain events out of the sequence altogether. Second, cognitive information processing is not acceptable to all teachers. Many teachers would not agree with this idea of how learning takes place. For those who disagree with cognitive information processing, Gagne's theory of instruction would not fit their needs.
Driscoll, M. P. (1994). Psychology of learning for instruction. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.
Gagne, R. M., Briggs, L. J., & Wager, W. W. (1992). Principles of instructional design. Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.