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Magic Learning Pill: Ontological and Instrumental Learning in Order to Speed Up Education


The purpose of this research is to investigate the phenomenology of learning — people”s attitudes toward their learning experiences that have inherent worth in themselves (i.e., ontological learning) or have value outside of the learning itself (i.e., instrumental learning). In order to explore this topic, 58 participants from the U.S., Russia, and Brazil were interviewed with a central question derived from the science fiction writer Isaac Asimov’s short story “Profession”: whether participants would take a “Magic Learning Pill” (MLP) to avoid the process of learning, and instead magically acquire the knowledge. The MLP would guarantee the immediate learning by skipping the process of learning while achieving the same effect of gaining skills and knowledge. Almost all participants could think of some learning experiences for which they would take MLP and others for which they would not. Many participants would not take MLP for ontological learning, which is learning experiences that have inherent value for the people, while they would take MLP for instrumental learning, which is learning that mainly serves some other non-educational purposes. The main finding suggests that both instrumental and ontological types of learning are recognized by a wide range of people from diverse cultures as present and valued in their lives. This is especially significant in light of the overwhelmingly instrumental tone of public discourse about education. In the context of formal education, ontological learning was mentioned 35 times (28.0%) while instrumental learning was mentioned 74 times (60.2%). Although ontological learning was often mentioned as taking place outside of school, incorporating pedagogy supporting ontological learning at school deserves consideration.

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  1. Although learning can be optimized in many different ways, in our observation on the literature and research in press by the fifth author, it is often referred to or aimed at shortening the time spent on learning (Hampel 2018, forthcoming).

  2. In their notion of self-determined motivation Deci and his colleagues define 4 phases of extrinsic motivation that progressively lead to autonomous self-determination of instrumental learning. For example, this is how they defined “identified regulation by personal importance” (the phase 3), “An example of an identified regulatory process might be students who prepare very hard for the college entrance examination because going to college is personally important to them. These students study hard because doing well is instrumental for an important self-selected goal. The behavior is extrinsically motivated because it is instrumental, but it is relatively autonomous-because of the person”s having identified with its value and regulation” (Rigby et al. 1992, p. 170).

  3. Packer and Goicoechea define ontology as “the consideration of being: what is, what exists, what it means for something— or somebody—to be” (p. 227). Ontological learning is driven by intrinsic motivation (Ryan and Deci 1996), although intrinsic motivation alone is not enough as a learner seems to have to place additional value on the experiences driven by intrinsic motivation.

  4. When the education information is missing, the research participant chose not to provide the current level of education (mostly in Brazil).

  5. In the brackets, there are abbreviated questions by an interviewer.


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Correspondence to Eugene Matusov.

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Matusov, E., Baker, D., Fan, Y. et al. Magic Learning Pill: Ontological and Instrumental Learning in Order to Speed Up Education. Integr. psych. behav. 51, 456–476 (2017).

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  • Instrumental learning
  • Ontological learning
  • Phenomenology
  • Spheres of education