Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Gagne's Nine Dull Commandments

50 year old theory
It’s over 50 years since Gagne, a closet behaviourist, published The Conditions of Learning (1965). In 1968 we got his article Learning Hierarchies, then Domains of Learning in 1972. Gagne’s theory has five categories of learning;
Intellectual Skills, Cognitive strategies, Verbal information, Motor skills and Attitudes.

OK, I quite like these – better than the oft-quoted Bloom trilogy (1956). Then something horrible happened.

Nine Commandments
He claimed to have found the Nine Commandments of learning. A single method of instruction that applies to all five categories of learning, the secret code for divine instructional design. Follow the recipe and learning will surely follow.

1 Gaining attention
2 Stating the objective
3 Stimulating recall of prior learning
4 Presenting the stimulus
5 Providing learning guidance
6 Eliciting performance
7 Providing feedback
8 Assessing performance
9 Enhancing retention and transfer to other contexts

Instructional designers often quote Gagne, and these nine steps in proposals for e-learning and other training courses, but let me present an alternative version of this list:

1 Gaining attention
Normally an overlong Flash animation or coporate intro, rarely an engaging interactive event.
2 Stating the objective
Now bore the learner stupid with a list of learning objectives (really trainerspeak). Give the plot away and remind them of how really boring this course is going to be.
3 Stimulating recall of prior learning
Can you think of the last time you sexually harassed someone?
4 Presenting the stimulus
Is this a behaviourist I see before me?
5 Providing learning guidance
We’ve finally got to some content.
6 Eliciting performance
Multiple-choice questions each with at least one really stupid option.
7 Providing feedback
Yes/no, right/wrong, correct/incorrect…try again.
8 Assessing performance
Use your short-term memory to choose options in the multiple-choice quiz.
9 Enhancing retention and transfer to other contexts
Never happens! The course ends here, you’re on your own mate….

Banal and dull
First, much of this is banal – get their attention, elicit performance, give feedback, assess. It’s also an instructional ladder that leads straight to Dullsville, a straightjacket that strips away any sense of build and wonder, almost guaranteed to bore more than enlighten. What other form of presentation would give the game away at the start. Would you go to the cinema and expect to hear the objectives of the film before you start? It’s time we moved on from this old and now dated theory using what we’ve learnt about the brain and the clever use of media.

And don’t get me started on Mager or Kirkpatrick!


Geetha Krishnan said...

Great post, Don! My first response was "Ouch, That hurt!" I wonder: Is the problem with the commandments themselves? Or is it with the way instructional designers treat them as one more set of check boxes to be ticked away in the design process?

May be it is worthwhile to rephrase / modify the commandments in view of today's media and today's learners? Can we expect that in your next post? Don's Diktats perhaps?

Mark Frank said...


Seems to me that you are blaming Gagne because designers either miss out of some of the steps or do them poorly. Most of the commandments look like pretty good practice to me. You just need to do them well.

Here's my take:

Gain attention - seems pretty essential to me. Of course, your example did the opposite - but that's hardly Gagne's fault. It needs something that relates to the learner. Maybe a snippet of the kind of difficulty the course addresses.

Stating the objective - the learner is an adult - don't they have the right to know what they will get for investing their time? In fact, if they don't know why they are doing the course they probably won't do it. They might sit in front of the screen, or the instructor, but they won't be motivated and they won't be able to put it in context because they won't have a context. Again - no need to list 10 bullet points - that's the instructional design - show them what they will be able to do as a result. Suspense is useful, but don't you have a pretty good idea how the next Bond film is going to turn out before it is even before its been made? Will that make it boring? You can put the suspense in the detail.

Prior learning - not so sure about this. It makes most sense when this is a sequence of modules or learning events. Not a bad idea to recap on the last event - doesn't have to be dull.

Presenting the stimulus. OK in what kind of situation do you need this course? Seems like you would be doing the learner a real disservice if you missed this out.

Learning guidance - looks good.

Eliciting performance - how about a game?

Providing feedback - could be part of the game - but needs to happen.

Assessing performance - actually seriously difficult to do this well in any self-study context for most skills. Why not set them an off-line exercise to assess themselves.

Transfer to other contexts - essential. Hardly Gagne's fault that noone does it.

A designer might be able to leave out some of the commandments; might the change the order; might perform some simultaneously in one activity. But they should know why.

Donald Clark said...

Two good points.

Geetha's point about modifying the nine steps has virtues but I suspect new theory has taken us well beyond these steps into much more media savvy territory. It would be better to focus on what we now know about memory, cognitive overload and how screen-based media actually works, than outdated instructional theory.

Mark - your take is fine. I'm not blaming Gagne personally. I do think his method is primitive and states the obvious, that's why it's easy to defend as 'good practice'. The blame is clearly on those 'instructional design' and 'train the trainer' courses which are full of old, non-empirical theory - Bloom, Gagne, Learning Styles, Kirkpatrick etc. Unfortunately, for gagne and otehrs, these steps are seen as a sequential ladder and the oder can't be shifted around. Designers don't really apply games techniques in their instructional designs, yet games designers have much to teach us on motivation, reinforcement, paced and personalised learning. My point is that his list mostly leads to bad, and not good, practice. The 'Gagne'led instructional designers I've worked with lacked creativity and a communication skills - they dumbed down content.

David Wilson said...

Donald - perfectly irreverent as always! Couldn't agree more.

But what is truly scary is the way this pseudo science is used as a prop for rigid content production thinking in the name of creating educationally sound e-learning content.

Clive Shepherd said...

As you suggest, Gagne's 'commandments' do seem rather restrictive and old-fashioned. I think that's because they envision only one over-arching teaching/learning strategy, i.e. structured instruction. Much classroom training and the majority of self-study e-learning falls into this category, more because it's a default option, than because it has been consciously chosen. I believe structured instruction has a role to play, particularly with more dependent learners and where the outcomes have to be clearly demonstrated. Most of Gagne's commandments seem well suited to this approach, although not necessarily in this strict order. As others have commented already, it isn't enough for the guidelines to be followed, they have to be executed well (and that requires real communication skills and some imagination).

But, of course, there are other srategies, including simple exposition, guided discovery and exploration/collaboration in an informal setting.

It seems that, yet again, I am the championing the cause of not throwing out the baby with the bath water. So often, good ideas are let down by poor implementation.

Matthew Nehrling said...

I'm in agreement with Mark Frank's comment. You shouldn't blame the roadmap for poor drivers.

Gagne provides a good map, but it is up to the designer to interpret that map into directions that his audience will understand and relate to.

I have seen far too many instructional design modules that do exactly what you say, almost using Gagne as a fill in the blank template instead of a roadmap. Generally, these are the same designers who have a list of Blooms action words and check off each sentence that one is used..

Geetha seemed to have it right, we should re-write or modify the 'commandments' for today's media and learners. This doesn't mean the direction changes, only the type of path. (I may take this as a challenge..)

Even the best eduChaos principles, when put in practice, has a starting point and an ending point in terms of results and expectations. Human nature is to follow patterns. Are we updating these patterns and delivery methods for today's generations?

-Matthew Nehrling

Mark Frank said...

Here is a far-fetched analogy -

To me Gagne is a bit like a recognised poetic or musical form. You might claim the sonnet is old-fashioned and restrictive, but you shouldn't use that as an excuse to write amorphous rubbish. For a moderate poet the form is a great help - you have to be good enough to know when to break the rules. And many of the world's greatest poets used the sonnet form to create wonderful poems. Many awful poets use it to write awful poetry, but I am not convinced they would do better without it.

Barry Sampson said...

Donald, I couldn't agree more. I spent a day a couple of years back being taught about applying instructional design theory to elearning, and was told that Gagne was the model to follow. Ever since then I've seen plenty of elearning that's tried to follow the model, and it's usually dull and linear.

The course was at Epic, do you think I should ask for my money back? :-)

Anonymous said...

Good post Donald. The thing that amazes me is why would anyone take a set of nine commandments of that kind seriously? At the risk of causing a further riot at the Donald Clark PC, I think
(not his stuff on learning styles) provides a better than average "scaffold" with which to think about the design of learning activities - it does not matter where you start in the cycle, or how long an activity lasts, but it nearly always seems to work (for the learners) if you sequence the things learners do in an activity in cycle order. And it is not a bad aid to your own informal or self-directed learning either.

Donald Clark said...

This takes us off in another direction and I agree that Kolb is more a more fruitful line of theory than Gagne.

However, Kolb claims that we can enter the cycle at any point and that learning a process of looping round and round again, seeing improvement on each loop e.g. we be able to do something but not express it in abstract terms.

Again I'd say that models such as these are also over-simplistic. They rarely match the reality of the learning process (because memory and retention is a messy and inefficient process)and one can argue that stages can be skipped or performed in parallel. I also agree with those who think it is weak on theory, information tasks, memorisation and reflection.

Subsequent empirical tests of the Kolb cycle by Jarvis (1987, 1995) have indeed shown that things are more complex. The model is less of a cycle and more of a cross-web of causality.

However, Kolb is a refreshing alternative to the overemphasis on academic, knowledge-based learning and other experiential theorists, such as Roger Schank, have brought a sense of realism into learning through 'learning by doing'. His book 'Lessons in Learning and E-learning' is ecellent.

Anonymous said...

Blogger did something odd between previewing and confirming the post about Kolb, and I meant to include a nice clean .

Basically I think these frameworks are frameworks not science. I take your point about Kolb being OTT/wrong about coninuously looping round the cycle; but what has always worked for me in F2F learning is that if you have a rough idea of where on the cycle the learners are, in the sense of what they are engaged in, then getting them to next do something broadly in step with the next stage in the cycle tends to work well for them, and to be authentic and appropriate. So designing activities taking this approach has a lot going for it.

(I've been looking but cannot find a publication written by Graham Gibb in the late 1980s and published by a predecessor of LSDA which from what I remember of it had some very convincing accounts of marked improvements in speed and effectiveness of learning things like nursing tasks when the learning cycle was used in the redesign the curriculum.)

Anonymous said...

Dammit, I give up. What looks good and works fine in preview, looks crap when published!

dmcoxe said...

I too found your post refreshing and agree wholeheartedly. But as an instructional designer I have to defend my craft. I find myself nowadays in the same role as the pulp fiction writer of a hundred years ago.

I do not have the luxury to craft a classic novel. The training industry, and especially the elearning industry, is caught up in the need for speed. We have to turn out content quickly. So I am forced to fall back on the hackneyed learning objective and multiple choice question because that is all the customer wants to buy.

I can argue that I need more time, or I need to interview the subject matter expert in greater detail to understand how the learner may best fit this new knowledge into existing information, but I am told there is no money in the budget for that. If we don't follow those constraints our customers will go to someone else who will.

It's a problem I have been wrestling with for a few years now and I wish I had a solution.

Anonymous said...

Having worked at Epic when Donald was CEO can I just say that designers also felt constrained by certain things – the biggest being that clients never wanted to spend the money that would enable us to implement any design that had the slightest chance of being engaging. My favorite being a client who wanted a cutting edge game design – for £25,000! The need to keep costs down to remain competitive always impacted the design. It’s only going to change when e-learning isn’t seen as a short term cheap option.

Anonymous said...

Interesting points. It's always useful to understand the context within which these theories are created. In Gagne's case,that context was military performance and training.

Personally I think it became easy to see the problems with the theories of Aristotle and Plato, etc. once Newton had made his mark on world. Then it became easy to see the limitations of Newtonian physics when Einstein published his theory of relativity and other works. All these guys make their contribution, which though groundbreaking for their time, feed the next generation of thinkers.

Just curious by the way as to your thoughts on the usability and e-learning whitepaper on Epic's web site that seems to propose Gagne's events of intstruction as a heuristic model for e-learning usability?

Donald Clark said...

Note that this was one of the few White Papers I did not write at Epic. There were up to 200 people working at Epic and a few were traditional Gagne types - they tended to be the duller, functional designers. The talented designers, in my experience, regarded all the Gagne stuff as irrelevant. We learnt to keep the 'Gagne' people away from the innovative projects.

Anonymous said...

I know I am responding to an old post, but one comment made is about giving away a movie before it begins. What do you consider the trailers and movie websites that outline the characters. Do mine eyes see objectives?

Donald Clark said...

Learning objectives are preseted as a list of text 'objectives'. It covers the groud in a pedestruian manner, step-by-step. They're dull and use the language of the traier and not the learner.

This is entirley different from a movie trailer that is desiged to excite and tease. Trailers deliberately avoid telling you the full story.

The two could't be more differet.

Dr. Sunita Gupta said...

But, "Old is Gold" and contains lot of virtues that teachers (instructors of traditional classroom learning) still use today and therefore may have lot of plus points that need to be adapted for e-learning modules. Ms. Geetha has rightly suggested the same.

What I feel therefore is not to discard Gagn's nine principles, but adapt them to the new changing scenario for multimedia delivery systems.

Michelle Gallen said...

Not sure if you've read the BBC story about the medical student who's taking legal action to ban multiple choice quizzes on the grounds that they discriminate against students with dyslexia. I blogged it at - get the full story at

Anonymous said...

Gagné maybe is 50 years old, but the human cognitive architecture is thousands of years old, and it is never changed much since the neolithic era, despite "today's media".
Maxwell theory of electromagntism is more than 200 years old, but physicists continue to use it with success because is the best explanation of many phenomena.
In Shelton & Wiley's book "The Design and Use of Simulation Computer Games in Education", van Eck, faced with the problem of the instructional value of those games, apply nothing else than... Gagné events of instruction (p. 45).
Gagné was more a proto-cognitivist (in the 50's!)than a behaviorist, in any case, constructivism is the oldest theory of all, being nothing more than a rephrase of the ideology of Rousseau and Dewey.
Bloom Taxonomy has been revised a few years ago by Anderson & Krathwohl and it's alive and well in any seriuos analysis of learning objectives.

Paul Crane said...

I was always taught that rules where for the guidance of wisemen and following of idiots.
Gagne produced a good guide, that how i use it.
Paul Crane

gig said...

I agree wholeheartedly, too. To hell with math traditionalists. It HAS been 50 years since 1965.

Anonymous said...

I've been teaching for a while, and I have to say, these are all necessary. However, what they don't say is that some of these are redundant, based on the activity. Many of them are tied into one activity. The idea that you need to have them all broken into separate distinct pieces is misleading and sometimes ineffective.
Additionally, while these are all necessary, they can also be re-ordered.
I do use them like a checklist when I plan a lesson or course, but I don't follow them strictly and to the letter. I adapt them quite openly based on the material and the learners.

Anonymous said...

Hey Don, I certainly hear what your saying in your opinions of Gagne's work and agree that we need to continuously come up with new and better ways of doing things. Unless you have some better ideas, please stop whining. At the least, offer some helpful suggestions for those of us reading your comments. Anyone can be a critic Don, but not everyone can be a problem-solver.

Donald Clark said...

Hey Anonymous Your whining accusation is proof of your inability to deal with critical debate. Not unuusal in fans of overly-precriptive instructional methods. Go read something else or behave like an adult and be contructive or at least show a modicum of independent thought. Bye!

Unknown said...

Hello, Donald.
Just because something is old does not mean it does not have value. If done well, Gagne's steps provide a great framework in which to design and the retention of information by learners has been proven over and over again that this design model is effective. (One of your commenters even pointed out how these ideas go back to Rousseau...) Until another model of design shows more effective for learners, I vote we keep using what works instead of trying to be trendy, or catchy, or even exciting just so something is not "dull". With instructional design we start with the end goal in mind. My students' actually learning and retaining the information to be better at their job and able to apply the information they learn to other situations and/or to further expand/create new knowledge is more important than whether they had an exciting time learning the information. If designed well, any instruction using Gagne's Nine's Events can be engaging, even entertaining, but most importantly, useful in educating and getting the information presented in a way it will actually be retained and used well. And pointing out objectives in the beginning gives a learner "buy-in" and a reason to keep listening to the instruction vs. hoping to keep their attention with useless 'excitement'. Stating objectives also helps the learner filter out non-essential information based on what they already know and in light of the educational goals at hand. What are your ideas on a better approach to instructional design and, most importantly, what is your evidence that this "new" approach is more effective than Gagne's?

Note: Just because people disagree with you does not mean they are not being "constructive" or showing "independent thought" or "whining", it just means they disagree with you (perhaps you mean "fawning" for "constructive"). We are not always right, neither are you. An adult accepts criticism and does not name call or demean or even deflect the criticism just because they feel offended. Grown ups debate with information and facts and evidence (which means they use substance in their critiques, e.g. which aspects of brain theory do you wish Gagne's format would use better?) Where is your evidence that Gagne's 9 Events do not work? "Dull" does not mean it does not work.

Donald Clark said...

I almost lost the will to finish your piece but published it anyway. (You do realise that I wrote this nearly ten years ago? You seem to have trouble reading the previous posts. It was Anonymous who accused me of 'whining' ("Unless you have some better ideas, please stop whining."). I'm just glad I'm not being taught by someone who clearly can't read and assimilate some simple text in a thread. As it happens I could go on about alternatives and have for the last ten years and more, but your teacherly tone was too dull for words.

Unknown said...

Thank you for your reply, Donald. Yes, I did realize it was ten years ago that you wrote your piece. As it is still posted and searchable (how I found it), that is why I felt it deserved a response since it is still "standing" as critique. (If you no longer want this piece to be discussed, I'm sure you could take it down.) Like I pointed out, you attack the person and not the idea or discussion at hand e.g. "clearly can't read and assimilate some simple text in a thread." Your so-called "debate" technique could use some consideration. (Also, I did not search out your other "alternatives" as you did not allude to them in this post that I was responding to...) Joy

Donald Clark said...

My points stand. "Hey Don, I certainly hear what your saying in your opinions of Gagne's work and agree that we need to continuously come up with new and better ways of doing things. Unless you have some better ideas, please stop whining. At the least, offer some helpful suggestions for those of us reading your comments. Anyone can be a critic Don, but not everyone can be a problem-solver." That was what I responded to when I used the word 'whining'. I respond to serious debate not dull, stream of consciouness thought. And on Rousseau