Learning Stages

Learning Stages

A Chapter by Debbie Barry

An essay on the learning stages postulated by Gagné and Piaget. Written for HIS 324: History of American Education.


Learning Stages



Gagné and Piaget both espoused theories of learning stages in the development of a learner.  Their theories are similar, in that each theory begins with learning very basic skills and progresses by adding more complex concepts in a clear sequence.  Gagné and Piaget differed, however, in the way they believed learning was determined.

Gagné believed that "developmental stages of learning ... are determined by what is to be learned" (Pulliam and VanPatten, 2007, p. 70).  He did not believe that a learner's age or maturity was as important to learning as making sure that learning occurred in the right order.  He stressed the sequence of learning, stating that "no learning stage can be skipped" (Pulliam and VanPatten, 2007, p. 70).

Piaget differed from Gagné in that Piaget believed that the stages of learning are regulated by the learner's age and maturity, with specific types of learning taking place at each given age range.  Piaget's "stages or levels are related, but they are determined by a combination of age and experience" (Pulliam and VanPatten, 2007, p. 71).

Taken together, Gagné's and Piaget's theories are useful in the organization of curriculum to optimize learning in today's classrooms.  It is already a common practice to organize curricula so that simpler concepts are taught before more complex concepts.  By the nature of linear time, then, the simpler concepts of Gagné's theory are taught during the earlier age ranges of Piaget's theory.

For example, with the exception of children with special needs, who must be considered apart from children with normal development, children in the United States usually learn to recite the alphabet by age 3 or 4, after which they learn to recognize and identify the letters of the alphabet and to arrange them in order.  The vast majority of children then learn to recognize simple words before learning to put words together to form written sentences.  This building concept upon concept continues as students learn progressively more complex words, sentences, and, eventually, literary forms.

Problems arise when educators try to take either Gagné or Piaget without the other.  In general, Piaget was correct in his assessment of what kind of learning takes place at what age, but there is a wide range of learning abilities in American students, and some students learn much faster or much more slowly than the norm.  It is an unfortunate habit, in my experience with public schools over the last ten years, for educators to require all students to learn at the speed of the average student, leaving faster students frustrated with boredom and slower students floundering and struggling to catch up.

Although Maria Montessori, founder of the Montessori method, did not agree with Piaget in regard to the specific ages at which children learn specific material, Piaget "was heavily influenced by Montessori and her method" (Enright, 1997, para. 6).  Thus, although Montessori predated Piaget, a similar concept to Piaget's theory of developmental learning continues in the popular Montessori schools, which "cover infant education through matriculation from high school" (Kennedy, 2010, para. 3).

The combined theories of learning stages contribute to education in that students build up their knowledge and are better able to retain and use the information they have acquired at earlier stages as they use that earlier learning to accomplish later learning.  This is particularly useful in teaching math concepts, in which Gagné's idea that "[s]kills should be learned on [sic] at a time and each new skill should build on previously acquired skills" (Dahlen and Kumrow, 1999, para. 6) allows students to learn simple concepts first, and to use those as a foundation on which to build more complex concepts.

Gagné's learning stages, which are not age-dependent, are also useful for teaching students with learning delays, including Autism.  According to Equidel's (2007) Web site, Theoretical Foundations, "children with Autism are more attentive and motivated, are less resistant to learning, and exhibit a reduction of nonproductive learning behaviors" (para. 2) when presented with computer assisted instruction (CAI) that is "developed on the tenets of Gagné's (1970) instructional design. In Gagné's theory, a specified list of building blocks is called a learning hierarchy. To teach a specific skill, a teacher must first identify its prerequisite skills and make sure that the student possesses them" (Equidel, 2007, para. 5).  Thus, using learning stages in a special education environment can enable students who are not able to learn at a normal pace to learn at their own pace, and to build on what they have already learned.



Dahlen, B. and Kumrow, D. (1999).  Learning theory.  Retrieved January 7, 2010, from           http://www.csulb.edu/dkumrow/conference/learning_theory.html

Enright, M. (1997, August).  Foundations study guide: Montessori education. Retrieved January     7, 2010, from http://www.objectivistcenter.org/showcontent.aspx?ct=48&h=44

Equidel. (2007).  Theoretical foundations.  Retrieved January 7, 2010, from                                 http://www.computhera.com/theo.html

Kennedy, R. (2010).  What is a Montessori school?  Retrieved January 7, 2010, from           http://privateschool.about.com/od/privateschoolfaqs/f/montessori.htm

Pulliam. J.D. and VanPatten, J.J. (2007).  History of education in America.  Upper Saddle   River, NJ: Pearson Education, Inc.

© 2017 Debbie Barry

Author's Note

Debbie Barry
Initial reactions and constructive criticism appreciated.

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Added on November 10, 2017
Last Updated on November 10, 2017
Tags: history, learning stages, Piaget, Gagné, development, education, essay

A Journey through My College Papers


Debbie Barry
Debbie Barry

Clarkston, MI

I live with my husband in southeastern Michigan with our two cats, Mister and Goblin. We enjoy exploring history through French and Indian War re-enactment and through medieval re-enactment in the So.. more..