Robert Mills Gagne was born August 21, 1916, in North Andover, Massachusetts. He earned an A.B. degree from Yale in 1937 and a Ph.D. from Brown University in 1940. He was a professor of psychology and educational psychology at Connecticut College for Women (1940-1949), Pennsylvania State University (1945-1946), Princeton (1958-1962), and the University of California at Berkeley (1966-1969) and was a professor in the Department of Educational Research at Florida State University in Tallahassee starting in 1969. Gagne also served as a research director for the Air Force (1949-1958) at Lack land, Texas, and Lowery, Colorado. He was employed as a consultant to the Department of Defense (1958-1961) and to the United States Office of Education (1964-1966). In addition, he served as a director of research at the American Institute of Research in Pittsburgh (1962-1965).
Gagné's work had a profound influence on American education and on military and industrial training. Gagné and L.J. Briggs were among the early developers of the concept of instructional systems design which suggests that all components of a lesson or a period of instruction can be analyzed and that all components can be designed to operate together as an integrated plan for instruction. In a significant article titled "Educational Technology and the Learning Process" (Educational Researcher, 1974), Gagné defined instruction as "the set of planned external events which influence the process of learning and thus promote learning."
Gagné was also well-known for his sophisticated stimulus-response theory of eight kinds of learning which differ in the quality and quantity of stimulus-response bonds involved. From the simplest to the most complex, these are: signal learning (Pavlovian conditioning), stimulus-response learning (operant conditioning), chaining (complex operant conditioning), verbal association, discrimination learning, concept learning, rule learning, and problem solving.
Gagné argued that many skills may be analyzed into a hierarchy of behaviors, called a learning hierarchy. An instructor would develop a learning hierarchy for something to be taught by stating the skill to be learned as a specific behavior and then asking and answering the question "What would you have to know how to do in order to perform this task, after being given only instructions?" Gagné tested the concept of learning hierarchies in studies, mainly using simple arithmetic skills. His findings tended to support the notion of learning hierarchies and indicated that individuals rarely learn a higher skill without already knowing the lower skill.
Gagné's approach to learning and instruction, especially the instructional systems design approach, was sometimes criticized as most appropriate for mastery learning of information and intellectual skill objectives, but less suited for attitude and cognitive strategy outcomes. Undoubtedly, Gagné's work had a tremendous impact on thinking and theories in educational circles. His hierarchical theory of prerequisite steps in learning had many implications for the sequencing of instruction, and many feel it contributed to the development of a more scientific approach to instruction. In the field of English, for example, it allowed teachers to break English language skills into successively simple components and to teach the components in an orderly sequence, reinforcing correct responses along the way. Gagne's focus on systematic precise instructions also helped to lay the groundwork for individualized instruction and school accountability in American society.