Educational Thinkers’ Hall of Fame – Robert Gagne, Jerome Bruner and Howard Gardner

Here’s a guest blog by Mary Hunter. Mary has a voluntary role in our senior governance as the WEA’s Association Committee Representative from the West Midlands Region.

About Mary

I started teaching, after a career in banking, a few years after the publication of Gagne’s “Conditions of learning”. As a linguist I have been involved in the development of language courses, worked at the (then) Schools Council on the Normal and Further Level Proposals for a new Sixth form curriculum, so worked across the subject spectrum. Later I was heavily involved in developing with my colleagues courses  run under the aegis  of the City and Guilds, B/Tec , GNVQ s, CPVE – ie. working with Sixth formers on the more pre-vocational path. During two years work with the Technical and Vocational Education Initiative I worked extensively on the development of the relevant skills curriculum, providing courses for teachers .

I continued my involvement in these areas after my formal retirement and am currently doing some exciting work with colleagues on the curriculum for a new Free Vocational school to be set up in Herefordshire

Mary’s guest blog

As a contribution to Ann Walker’s blog on the great educational thinkers  I want to add three names; not quite so formidable or well-known  perhaps as  John Dewey, Piaget, Freire and Bloom, but who have seminally influenced my work as a teacher and who are therefore my heroes – Dr. Robert Gagne, Jerome Bruner and (latterly) Howard Gardner.  I would have added Benjamin Bloom, of course, but his slot is taken already.

I also want to provide a – dare I say it – more practical slant, trying to link the work of the three cognitive psychologists (and Bloom) to suggest that their educational thinking  is really very similar, and also to tell teachers and tutors that while they might not all know the work of my heroes they have been using their  insights and methodologies in their teaching all along!

(I have been researching on the Internet to get my information  and refresh my memory,  so I am assuming that readers will do the same. I shall not therefore do the pen portraits, concentrating on the practical aspect, including the issue of assessment).

Dr. Robert Gagne’s  main book is “The Conditions of Learning” (1965).

For Gagne there are FIVE types of learning, EIGHT  conditions of learning and NINE  “Learning Events”. This all sounds too much, but I assure you that you as teachers and tutors are using them regularly!

The five types of learning: verbal information, intellectual skills, cognitive strategies, motor skills and attitudes.

The eight conditions of learning: signal learning, stimulus –response learning, chaining, verbal association, discrimination learning, concept learning/formation, rule learning/application and problem solving (which involves using abstract, creative and strategic thinking to deal with new situations.)

This list of 8, in a hierarchy mirror the six in the Bloom Taxonomy set out clearly by Ann in her first blog

I.e. Learning,  understanding,  applying,  analysing,  evaluating and creating.

While the Gagne “Conditions of learning” might seem too constraining in some learning  contexts( though in my  foreign language teaching they have been the bedrock for my work), I feel that whatever activity we undertake we start with

Gathering information and making the relevant  selection, (discrimination) then we can organise and classify the information as appropriate to our topic, then understand   the material, analyse, then  synthesise the material, allowing us to form rules, learn to apply these rules and deduce principles which can be applied not just to the material at hand but to new material – and so the peak of the Bloom taxonomy – we problem solve!

Again, for most of you who are teachers and tutors, this is what you do in all your preparation and teaching. All I want to say here is that all this apparently high-sounding theory in fact is the basis for formative and summative assessment because the taxonomy/hierarchy makes it easier to develop the set of criteria needed for assessment which is fit for purpose.

And the 9 Learning events? You achieve these every time you prepare a lesson! They just sound over-complicated!

  1. Identify the types of learning outcomes;
  2. Identify  the internal conditions or processes  needed to achieve the outcomes;
  3. Identify the external conditions or instruction needed to achieve the outcomes;
  4. Specify the learning context;
  5. Record the characteristics of the learners;
  6. Select media for instruction;
  7. Plan to motivate learner;
  8. Test the instruction (i.e. via formative evaluation)
  9. Summative evaluation (to judge effectiveness of learning and teaching.)

A few quotes:”The assumption is  that  different types of learning exist and that different instructional conditions are more likely to bring about these different types of learning.” (This all seems obvious now, doesn’t it? And the work of Howard Gardner in postulating the 7 Intelligences confirm the significance of knowing not just the types of learning but crucially the types of learner!  Jerome Bruner would have agreed.)

“The focus of the theory is on the retention and honing of intellectual skills”.

Gagne (as Bloom) puts Problem Solving as the last of the 8 learning types, but this is not to say that  a young child cannot solve problems – which Jerome Bruner emphasises in his “Spiral Curriculum”. Nor does Problem Solving take place in a vacuum, devoid of content knowledge.

“The major condition for encouraging the learner to think is to be sure he already has something to think about”(!!) Learning by Problem Solving leads to new capabilities for further thinking. Included among these are not only the “higher-order” principles, but also “sets” and “strategies” that serve to determine the direction of thinking and therefore its productiveness”

His theories have been applied to the design of instruction in all fields, though originally his work was within a Military Training setting. (Which I only found out myself when doing this on-line research!)

The work of Jerome Bruner which I have known best is “Towards a Theory of Instruction” (1966).

Howard Gardner says that Bruner has in his books, “put forth his evolving ideas about the ways in which instruction actually affects the mental models of the world that students construct, elaborate on and transform”

A few relevant quotes from the internet will confirm how easily he sits within the other heroes bloggers have discussed, and how well he would have understand the WEA’s central  theme of education for social purpose.

“What we resolve to do in school only makes sense when considered in the broader context of what the society intends to accomplish through its educational investment in the young. How one conceives of education, we have finally come to recognise is a function of how one conceives of culture and its aims, professed and otherwise”.

His MACOS project (Man a Course of Study) sought to produce a comprehensive curriculum drawing upon the behavioural sciences. It is this programme of research which drew Howard Gardner to work with Bruner-so my three heroes are on the same wavelength!.

“Bruner suggested that intellectual ability developed in stages through step-by-step changes in how the mind is used. (His) thinking became increasingly influenced by writers like Lev Vygotsky and he began to be critical of the intrapersonal focus he has taken and the lack of attention paid to social and political context. “

In her introduction to the blog Ann said, inter alia,”Ofsted’s greater emphasis on teaching, learning and assessment (my emphasis) means that we need to show clearly that these activities are at the forefront of our planning and that we understand how to recognize good quality teaching and learning.”

Benjamin Bloom I have already incorporated into this blog. The group leadership models of Kurt Lewin sit well in the instructional framework of my thinkers, and the essential “two-way process” of education (viz. of learning) of Freire is implicit too. And Mary Hamilton’s “literacy as social practice” argument chimes in well with the work I have done particularly in the development of foreign language teaching, where the Gagne 8 conditions of Learning are an ideal basis for teaching, learning – and which provide the criteria for the assessment, formative and summative of the learning.

……………and this is another blog for those interested!


About Ann Walker
Adult education and lifelong learning specialist and campaigner. LinkedIn:

3 Responses to Educational Thinkers’ Hall of Fame – Robert Gagne, Jerome Bruner and Howard Gardner

  1. Ann Walker says:

    Thank you Mary for the work and thought that you have put into this blog. It’s very helpful to link the theoretical approaches to tutors’ practice.

    It’s good to know a bit more about your own background and experience too.

  2. gogwit says:

    Reblogged this on Gogwit's Blog and commented:
    Clear and concise well researched and written outline of the work of three educational thinkers of influence. Thank you.

  3. Tricia Hughes says:

    I agree with the comments above and just want to add another ‘thank you’ for a worthwhile read.

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