Born in 1916 in North Andover, Massachusetts, Gagne attended Yale University where he obtained an A.B. in 1937. He received his Ph.D. in psychology from Brown University in 1940 and taught at Connecticut College for Women from 1940-49 and at Pennsylvania State University from 1945-46. From 1949-58 Gagne was research director of the perceptual and motor skills laboratory of the US.Air Force, at which time he began to develop some of the ideas that would go into his comprehensive learning theory called the "conditions of learning".His research on military training problems while working for the Air Force and his experience as consultant to the U.S. Department of Defense (1958-61) helped him see that the "grand learning theories" of his predecessors were in adequate for the design of instruction.
Around this time Gagne began to formulate three principles that he saw as contributing to successful instruction: (1) providing instruction on the set of component tasks that build toward a final task, (2) ensuring that each component task is mastered, and (3) sequencing the component tasks to ensure optimal transfer to the final task. He published an article in 1962 entitled "Military Training and the Principles of Learning" that discussed these ideas. Gagne first published his best known book The Conditions of Learning in 1965.
Gagne's early investigations into the psychological bases of effective teaching led him to believe that an instructional technology or theory must go beyond traditional learning theory. Gagne concluded that instructional theory should address the specific factors that contribute to the learning of complex skills. He described these factors in a 1968 article entitled "Learning Hierarchies". Gagne next identified five unique categories of learning: verbal information, intellectual skills, attitudes, motor skills and cognitive strategies. These categories represent different capacities and performances and are learned in different ways. They are outlined in Gagne's 1972 article, "Domains of Learning".
After establishing his domains of learning Gagne went on to describe the environmental events and stages of information processing required for each of these domains in the 1977 edition of his book, The Conditions of Learning. The main aim of Gagne's theory is to assist in classroom instruction, The skills to be learned are written in the form of performance objectives and the specific type of learning is identified. Task analysis is then employed to identify prerequisite skills and "instructional events" are chosen for each learning objective. The major contribution of Gagne's approach is that it operationalizes the notion of cumulative learning and offers a mechanism for designing instruction from simple to complex levels. Gagne's concept of hierarchies has become a standard component of curricula in a variety of subject areas. And his theory provides a unified framework for a wide range of findings about learning such as those from information processing studies.