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!

Educational Thinkers’ Hall of Fame – Carol Dweck and motivation theory

Carol Dweck

Here’s another reflection about a thinker whose work influences teaching, learning and assessment in adult education. This time it’s Carol Dweck’s work on the theory of motivation.She has researched the effects of students’ beliefs about their own intelligence and how their views can affect their progress. She describes students who think that their intelligence is static as having an ‘entity’ view or a fixed mindset. She suggests that others, who believe that they can increase their intelligence through effort, have an ‘incremental’ view or a growth mindset.

In practice, her research suggests that teachers motivate students more effectively when they give feedback on the processes of learning and don’t link their assessment to the person’s assumed ability.

“That was a good way of working”, is more effective than, “You’re very clever.” A good teacher makes the link between effort and success instead of reinforcing the view that there’s a limit to what any student can achieve.

We learn by experiment and experience. We learn from what doesn’t work as well as from what does – so long as we’re not discouraged or told that we’re stupid. Allowing a student to think that they’re simply not bright enough to be successful is a self-fulfilling prophesy. As Henry Ford said, “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t – you’re right.”

Teachers who are aware of Dweck’s research can motivate students by showing that:

  • our brains continue to develop and to grow connections – especially if they’re stretched and exercised;
  • we can improve results by putting in extra effort and trying different approaches.

Promoting a growth mindset gives students much more of a message of hope and possibility than confirming perceptions of fixed intelligence. I know from personal experience of being kept alive on artificial life support for a while in 2009 that brain function is far from fixed. It can be lost and it can be gained. Many of the gains come from other people’s expectations and encouragement.

The 2-minute video from the excellent Teachers’ Toolbox website explains Dweck’s motivation theory. This site has other useful video links for teachers.

Carol Dweck’s own website at: shows how motivation theory is relevant to many aspects of life.

Do you agree with her theory or not? What other factors might affect motivation and achievement? Thoughts and comments welcomed.

Educational Thinkers’ Hall of Fame – More on John Dewey

A guest blog by Alison Iredale, Senior Lecturer at Oldham College

Alison Iredale

I am grateful for Ann’s previous post on John Dewey’s influence on learning (

In this post I want to offer a personal perspective related to his work on democracy and education. Some of this post appears in an article about Routinised Practices, part of my PhD thesis.

While researching Dewey at the start of my doctoral studies about 4 years ago I came across an address by Richard Pring, the soon to be retired Director of the Oxford Department of Educational Studies, to an Escalate conference in Glasgow in 2003. He recalled being blamed by Keith Joseph for the low standards in schools, due to teachers being introduced to the works of John Dewey in his department. Having just been knocked sideways professionally by Dewey’s writing myself after 20 years in vocational training and teaching I felt vindicated by my unease with the growth of standards driven education policy and processes in college based vocational education. I wondered whether the standards that Sir Keith Joseph said were falling were long in dire need of a good push. This went against all my training as a vocational teacher hitherto, where the discourse of standards and criteria dominated my teaching and my CPD.

As a teacher and trainer slurping the alphabet soup of CPVE, YTS, NVQ, GNVQ and BEC in the 80’s and 90’s I failed to question the underlying inequalities of narrowly focused quasi-skills criteria, preferring the certainties of the well constructed and cross referenced NVQ portfolio ‘owned’ by the candidate and ‘signed off’ by the internal verifier. Dewey, a pragmatist just like me, revealed that education was part of the democratic ideal, an imperative, and fundamental to the growth of an individual and society. I thought that I already endeavoured to promote transformative learning by taking risks in my lessons, introducing my students to collaborative working, new technology, and experts from the ‘real world of work’. Yet I was doing this generally within a confident, safe, collaborative, democratic, and supportive environment back then. Now, as a teacher educator I observe my own developing teachers basing their pragmatism and pedagogic decisions upon adequacy, compliance and capability because of the precarious, insecure labour conditions prevalent in the lifelong learning sector.

Central to Dewey’s writing is the notion of a democratic education. Laurence Stott (1995:31) describes his philosophy thus:

“Surely Dewey was right that humankind is implicated in an organic-material world open to intelligent and creative scientific research.

I like the word ‘implicated’ in this quotation, particularly as it suggests that I must take responsibility for my contribution to the inculcation of new teachers in the lifelong learning sector.

Dewey has been both castigated and revered, often in the same breath, by those wishing to influence educational values at a political and philosophical level. A pivotal notion surrounds his argument for growth as an end in itself, rather than growth towards a pre-determined end. Human beings recreate beliefs, ideals, hopes, happiness, misery, and practices and when individuals in a social group eventually pass away, through education the social group continues (Dewey 1916:6). This suggests to me an emphasis on education as an imperative.

Education, defined by Dewey as transmission through communication, not only ensures continuity of existence, but existence itself.  He argued strongly for experience to be favoured over instruction, in that whereas all genuine education derives from experience, not all experience is positive in the sense of being able to take an individual forward educationally. He was particularly interested in the nature of reflection, and the non-linear process of learning. Indeed for Dewey, reflection is about problem solving -the embodiment of learning as a holistic activity, taking into account the accumulated experiences of both parties.

“An experience is always what it is because of a transaction taking place between an individual and what, at the time, constitutes his environment, whether the latter consists of persons with whom he is talking about some topic or event, the subject talked about being also a part of the situation; or the toys with which he is playing; the book he is reading […..]; or the materials of an experiment he is performing.” (Dewey, 1938:43-44).

I return to Stott’s final words on Dewey’s influence in North America:

‘Dewey’s educational experiment-revolution designed to bring democracy to North America has not been successful: its humanistic promises lie unfulfilled, and classroom group activities can be even more oppressive and less growthful than superior class instruction. Education is at the crossroads’. (1995:32)

I find his conclusion troubling when viewed through the lens of the dominant discourses emanating from this coalition government.


Dewey, J. (1916) Democracy and Education. An introduction to the philosophy of education (1966 edn.), New York: Free Press.

Dewey, J. (1938) Experience and Education, New York: Collier Books. (Collier edition first published 1963)

Iredale, A. (2012) Down the rabbit-hole: Routinised Practices, Dewey and Teacher Training in the Lifelong Learning Sector, Journal of Higher Education, Skills and Work Based Learning, 2:1.

Stott, L (1995) ‘Dewey a Disaster?’ International Journal of Research & Method in Education, 18: 1, 27 — 33

Educational Thinkers’ Hall of Fame – Richard Henry Tawney

This is a guest blog by Ruth Spellman, the WEA’s General Secretary

Ruthe Spellman, WEA General Secretary

My vote for educational influencers would probably go to RH Tawney for all the reasons why I applied to become General Secretary of the WEA, and why I have had a lifetime’s commitment to improving access to learning.One of my favourite quotes from Tawney;“The purpose of the association is to provide for men and women who want to take their bearings on the world, opportunities of co-operative study, in congenial company, with a leader who knows enough of his business to be not only a leader but a fellow student.”

The quote has huge resonance today as more and more of our language and discourse is dominated by the need to re-examine short term returns, short term profits, short term gratification for the consumer, short term windfalls and bonuses.  Education (as Tawney reminds us) is a longer term investment enabling us to participate in and benefit from the huge technological advances of the 20 century.  To use our inventiveness and creativity and channel our energy into positive outcomes for our society as well as our economy.  Reading the testimony of men and women who have been students, tutors and volunteers for the WEA over 100 years I am forced to agree with Mary Turner (1921 -1989) who was a hugely prolific advocate of the WEA in the North West she said “In terms of interest on investment, the WEA does a lot better that the stock market”

Richard Henry Tawney, former President of the WEA

The Wikipedia entry on Tawney is at and there’s more information at

Educational Thinkers’ Hall of Fame – Sonia Nieto

Sonia Nieto is an inspiring educational thinker. Much of her writing is relevant to adult education although her experience is as a teacher-educator and classroom teacher in the American public (state) school system.

I really liked this section from page 76 of her book, What Keeps Teachers Going? (Sonia Nieto. New York: Teachers’ College Press, 2003). She describes the characteristics that we value in our WEA tutors.

(If you’re new to this, pedagogy means the art or science of being a teacher.)

Quoted text from Sonia Nieto (with the author’s kind permission)

“Good teachers think deeply and often about the craft of teaching and the process of learning. They are not simply technicians who know how to write good lesson plans and use collaborative groups effectively, although this is also part of what they do. Above all, excellent teachers are engaged every day in intellectual work, the kind of serious undertaking that demands considerable attention and thought. They devote substantial time and energy to their teaching and, over time, they develop extensive expertise and confidence in the work they do. Henry Giroux has defined teachers as intellectuals in this way: “in order to function as intellectuals, teachers must create the ideology and structured conditions necessary for them to write, research , and work with each other in producing curricula and sharing power…. As intellectuals, they will combine reflection and action in the interest of empowering students with the skills and knowledge needed to address injustices and to be critical actors committed to developing a world free of oppression and exploitation.”

All good teachers, whether they consciously carry out research or not, are researchers in the broadest sense of the word. This is because good teachers are also learners, and they recognise that they need to keep learning throughout their careers if they are to improve. They probe their subject matter, constantly searching for material that will excite and motivate their students; they explore pedagogy to create a learning environment that is both rigorous and supportive; they talk with their colleagues about difficult situations. Above all, they value the intellectual work that is at the core of teaching.”

Further thoughts? 

  • How can we tell the difference between a teacher who is an intellectual and one who is a ‘technician’?
  • Does this approach apply to other jobs and roles (especially in the WEA?)
  • Why might the difference matter to students and to society?
  • Has a tutor inspired you with an intellectual approach?

There’s more information about Sonia Nieto at


Thanks for various emails responding to this thread, including one from Phill O’Brien from the WEA’s North West Region who sent this link to teaching and learning resources:

Educational Thinkers’ Hall of Fame – John Dewey

The American philosopher John Dewey (1859 – 1952) was one of the leading educational thinkers of the twentieth century. He’s another educator who had a deep and lasting impact on adult education. It’s difficult to do justice to his wide-ranging ideas in a short blog so this just gives a flavour of some of his work. Other people might want to expand on it or add their perspectives?

John Dewey

Education for democracy and society

Dewey championed the idea that education is for the collective benefit of society as a whole as well as for individual students. He believed that education should enable people to take an active part in a vibrant democracy and that teaching methods and curriculum design should support this, although he thought that learning processes were more relevant than curriculum content.

The influence of experience on learning

Dewey introduced a theory that linked experience with learning, based on ideas that he described as ‘continuity’ and ‘interaction’.

He promoted the idea that we learn something, positive or negative, from every experience in our lives and then store the memories, constantly accumulating more and more learning. He described this as continuity.

Dewey suggested that the specific nature of people’s past experiences and prior learning shapes their responses to any new situations, creating personalised interpretations of any current experiences. He referred to this as interaction.

He deduced that people might experience any current shared situation in very different ways depending on their previous personal experiences and individual learning. Anyone who has ever discussed their opinions about a novel and wondered if other people had read the same book will have experienced this in practice. The range of reactions to situations can become much more exaggerated in groups of adult students who have had varying life (and educational) experiences.

It’s important for educators to understand these theories. We can’t change students’ past experiences but we can try to understand them. We can use our insights to improve the learning environments so that our students’ new experiences are as positive as possible for each of them. We can encourage students to be open to different viewpoints. This has a direct bearing on the way we might think about issues of equality and diversity in our curriculum, teaching, learning and assessment – and in life in general.

There’s more information on Dewey and further links at

Responses to the ‘Educational Thinkers’ Hall of Fame’ idea

There are some very interesting and thoughtful responses my last blog and Andria Birch added a thought-provoking video of a talk by Donald Clark at It’s well worth watching it for an insight into the impact of new media on teaching and learning. Using Benjamin Blooms’ approach, it might be useful to consider how significant Clark’s analysis is for the prospects of more traditional models of teaching and learning?

I linked the last blog with the ‘Adult Educators in Action’ group on the LinkedIn website, where additional recommendations for the Hall of Fame include Myles Horton, Malcolm Knowles, David Boud and others. Here’s the link.

Any thoughts on how Dewey’s approaches might influence teaching, learning and assessment in today’s adult education – or other thoughts or suggestions prompted by the ‘Hall of Fame’ ideas, including the increasing use of technology in learning?


Alison Iredale has written a guest blog following on from this one at