A Constructionist Approach to Values through On-line Narrative Tools

Marina Umaschi Bers
MIT Media Laboratory
E15-320A, 20 Ames St.
Cambridge, MA 02139 USA
(617) 253-0379
Abstract: We live in a society where concepts of self, family, community and "what is right and wrong"
are constantly changing.  Therefore there is a need for learning environments that encourage children to
actively explore their identity as well as the personal and social values they live by. Computational tools
have potential to foster learning about these issues. However, there has been little research in this area.
The few existing technological environments address values as a decision-making problem. In this paper I
propose a narrative approach, based on a constructionist way of learning about the connection between
identity and values. The research looks at how on-line collaborative environments can become tools to
think about moral and identity issues. The paper also describes an on-going research project,
Kaleidostories, a computer-based narrative tool to support construction of coherence between the
fragmented selves and values that populate our identity. The goal is to explore how new technologies can
assist in children's discovery of their own selves as well as the underlying patterns of thought and
behavior that connect the worldviews proposed by different religions and cultures.

1.  Introduction

We live in a society where concepts of self, family, community and "what is right and wrong" are constantly 
changing.  Therefore there is a need for learning environments that encourage children to explore their identity and 
the personal and social values they live by. However, in democratic societies, issues regarding values and education 
are controversial: whose values are to be taught? What do we mean by values? How can we teach and learn multiple 
and contradictory values? How do we deal with identity issues? The challenge of re-thinking both values and 
education acquires a new dimension when considering the possibilities that networked technologies offer for new 
ways of learning. The research presented in this paper looks at how on-line collaborative environments can become 
tools to think about moral and ethical issues within a narrative-based constructionist approach.
Traditionally, values-education has been associated with religious education and moral education. In regards to 
values, I situate my work within a cognitive approach, based on the metaphoric nature of human knowledge, that 
Mark Johnson (1993) defines as "moral imagination". In regards to education, I position my work within the 
constructionist philosophy of education (Papert, 1980). Constructionism asserts that people are likely to create new 
ideas when they are actively engaged in making external artifacts that they can reflect upon and share with others. 
Constructionism carries an interventionist perspective because it not only aims at understanding how knowledge is 
constructed, but also aims at designing learning environments to produce a mindset change.

In this paper I propose a constructionist approach to values through the use of narrative-based computational tools. I 
distinguish two different ways of looking at values in education, the moral reasoning approach and the narrative 
approach. I also present technological environments designed responding to these two different models. Finally, I 
describe on an on-going research project, "Kaleidostories", a web-based collaborative environment explicitly 
designed within a narrative-based constructionist approach to values and identity.

2. Different Approaches to Values in Education

This section explores the plurality of meanings that the word "value" conveys. Later, it presents two different 
approaches to address values and learning: the moral reasoning approach and the narrative approach. Long before 
the traditional school was set up, teaching and learning about values was one of the main priorities of education. 
Plato, in "The Republic" was concerned to train the character and the mind of the young Greek; the final goal of 
education was moral training as much as intellectual. In the old times, learning about the "outer world" and the 
"inner world" was part of a holistic experience guided by a mentor or tutor. The learner learned what was needed at 
each moment, without distinguishing between the needs of the mind or the soul. 

With the emergence of the industrial revolution, a new institution was created: the school. The need to find a way to 
make the learner’s experience uniform and universal lead to the development of a curriculum that specifies areas 
worthy of study. The intellectual development of the individual became the main goal of the schools, while the 
emotional and spiritual aspects were delegated to the family and the religious institutions. In the modern times and 
especially with the advent of psychoanalysis, the study of the inner world grew to include not only the soul, but also 
issues of identity <1> . Today, it is widely recognized that the inner world is a complex entity, as complex as the outer 
world, and therefore deserves time and effort to learn about, as well as tools to explore with.

2.1 The moral reasoning approach

The American Heritage dictionary defines value: “a principle, standard or quality considered worthwhile or 
desirable”. Value, in this sense, sometimes is used as a synonym of virtue, moral excellence and righteousness; and 
as a synonym of ethics, a set of principles of right conduct which stress conformity with idealistic standards. 

According to some religious traditions, for example Judaism, values and virtues are intimately linked but are not the 
same thing <2> . Values are abstract repositories of prescribed beliefs or normative principles for personal and social 
action, while virtues are instantiations in concrete experiences in the world. Values are associated with ethical 
principles, for example truth, while virtues are associated with behaviors and concrete practices, for example, being 

According to a Jewish approach to values education, the emphasis is on practice, the moral deed, and not only on 
contemplation, the moral thought. Religion and morality are an organic unity concerned with the development of a 
lifestyle, mindset and behavior system (Chazan, 1980). Within this perspective values and identity are intimately 
linked. This link is not so obvious in secular approaches to moral education that are concerned with the development 
of ways of thinking about moral issues.

For example, according to a secular philosophical tradition, the teaching and learning of ethical enquiry is 
fundamental to enable students to recognize what is of worth and to improve their judgement. Matthew Lipman 
proposes a program of ethical inquiry within which to apply reasoning skills to value problems (Lipman, 1988). 
Within this perspective, ethical inquiry has to happen in the context of philosophy, a discipline specially well-
equipped to engage concept-formation skills.

Psychology has also focused on values. Lawrence Kohlberg extended Piaget’s framework and studied the stages of 
the development of moral reasoning in teenagers and adults. The stages that Kohlberg identifies start with value 
judgements of a highly egocentric form, followed by a decentering process. The final stage is reached when abstract 
moral principles develop. Kohlberg's stages resemble Piaget's in the sense that the highest stage of development 
involves abstraction (Papert, 1987). Carol Gilligan (1982) complemented this work by focusing on how women 
construct the moral domain and how they approach and resolve dilemmas in a different way than men. 

Computational environments have been developed to help people explore the complexity of moral dilemmas. For 
example, Tammy Berman at the ILS (1995), had began the design of an ASK-system based on kid's moral dilemmas 
and their reasoning about them. The key function of  an ASK systems is to help users get the information they need 
to solve their problems as easily as possible. Other examples of technological environments aimed at exploring 
moral issues, were developed by Robert Cavalier and his team, from the Center for the Advancement of Applied 
Ethics at Carnegie Mellon University. They created a CD-ROM, "A right to die? The Dax Cowart Case"(Routledge, 
1996), to explore case-based moral reasoning in relationship with Medical Ethics. Similar efforts have been done by 
this team to create other CD-ROMs such as "The issue of Abortion in America" (Routledge, 1998) The goal of these 
type of environments is to support moral reasoning and problem solving. Therefore, the link between identity and 
values is not as stressed in these types of experiences as it is in the religious approach to values education. 

Although different in the link they establish between identity and values, the religious, the philosophical and the 
psychological positions revised here are part of what I call the moral reasoning approach to values in education. 
The emphasis is on argumentation and logic. This approach is grounded on what Mark Johnson defines as  "Moral 
Law folk theory" (Johnson, 1993). By this, Johnson means "any view that regards moral reasoning as consisting 
entirely of the bringing of the concrete cases under moral laws or rules that specify 'the right thing to do' in a given 
instance." A different approach to values in education, the narrative approach is presented in the next sub-section.

2.2 The narrative approach

The narrative approach is grounded on what Johnson calls "moral imagination". It is based on the metaphoric 
nature of human reasoning and on previous work on metaphors as grounded in bodily experience and as structured 
by various kinds of imaginative processes (Lakoff & Johnson, 1980). Within this framework, moral imagination 
implies that the way we frame a situation will depend on which metaphorical concepts we are using to categorize it.

The narrative approach to values stresses that, as Johnson points out, "only within a narrative context can we fully 
understand moral personality (the self) and its actions." Narrative has become a tool highly utilized to teach and 
learn about values. For example, in traditional experiences, the authority (the teacher, the curricula, the community, 
the institution) presents to the children stories, such as fairy tales or myths, that introduce universal human values 
(Bennett W, 1993). For example, historical or religious figures are used as role models. However, many of those role 
models are far removed from children’s everyday experiences and become empty vessels, with no invested meaning 
from the part of the child, and rarely accomplish the envisioned identification process. 

Values are grounded on stories illustrating a static list of “do’s” and “do not’s”, abstractions that children can repeat 
by heart, without linking them to their personal or social context <3>. In religious education, this is one of the biggest 
problems. For example, a student says that people have to share their food with those who do not have (like Jesus 
did) and gets an “A” in her charity essay. During lunch at school, however, she enjoys herself throwing bread to her 
classmates sitting at further tables. The problem has nothing to do with Melanie being “good” or “bad”, neither with 
her information level. The question is an experiential one. Within the constructionist approach that I will present in 
later, values are associated with concrete action and not just moral argument. 

Our identity is defined by how we behave and the actions we take in the world and not only by who we say we are. 
This emphasis on behavior and not only on knowledge is very important to frame our constructionist approach to 
values (Bers & Bergman, 1998). Our identity is composed by a plurality of co-existent and disparate selves <4> that we 
acquire from others with whom we may or may not interact in a direct way. We contain a multiplicity of 
"internalized others" who serve as models for action in the world, and who may not necessarily harmonize with each 
other (Gergen, 1991).  How do we create a sense of coherence between these multiple selves? Narrative has a major 
role in this task.

Narrative serves a double-edged descriptive and constructive function with respect to identity. 
1) Descriptive function, because it supports the finding of coherence between the diverse stories of our experience, 
thus allowing us to have a coherent life story to present to others and to ourselves (Linde, C. 1993). The descriptive 
function is embodied in self-description genres such as conversational personal stories (Miller, P. 1990) and 
autobiographies (Bruner, 1987) and allows the organization of the facts after they occurred. 2) Constructive 
function, because it enables, through external dramatizations, to play out our chorus of voices and diverse roles in 
the world. Both the descriptive and constructive functions serve to help us to understand the role of narrative in the 
process of identity construction.

Some researchers (Schank, 1995) propose narrative as a fundamental constituent of human memory, knowledge and 
social communication. We can’t access the facts, all we can access are stories about those facts, told by our different 
inner voices. To put together those stories and voices in a coherent way is a construction process that leads to deeper 
learning about our identity. As I will explain in the next section, this process can be facilitated by technological 
environments specially designed to help us think about values and identity.

3. Constructionist tools to  explore values

As the constructionist theory of learning states, we learn better when we create or construct our own meaningful 
artifacts to reflect with and to share with others. In the same way, we learn better about our identity and our values 
when we are actively engaged in the process of re-creating our role models and stories. In order to engage in this 
meaning-making activity, computational construction kits can support children's design and construction of their 
own projects (Resnick et. al, 1996). However, although extensive work has been done within constructionism on 
creating tools, such as Logo and Starlogo, to help children think in different ways about sciences and mathematics 
(Harel and Papert, 1993), little work has yet been done on designing technological tools, such as SAGE, that help 
children learn about themselves (Umaschi & Cassell, 1997). Research is needed to explore the benefits of the 
computer over traditional media such as paper and pencil, role-playing games and puppetry, frequently used in 
therapy to help people learn about their identity <5>.

The recent increase of home-pages, chat-spaces, 3D worlds, MUD's and Internet-based role-playing games is 
producing a growing amount of research on "identity in cyberspace". For example, Sherry Turkle (1995) proposes 
that the "Internet has become a significant social laboratory for experimenting with the constructions and re-
constructions of self that characterize postmodern life." Some of this research claims that virtual worlds might help 
people explore identity. However, a distinction needs to be made between tools that allow the  expression of identity 
and values and tools that support their exploration. 

Webster dictionary defines to express as "to make known"; for example, a home-page might be created in order to 
say to the rest of the world: "This is who I am." In contrast, to explore is defined as "to search through or into"; for 
example, the construction  of a web-based family-tree might be used to learn more about roots and genealogy. The 
distinction is in the degree of personal or social transformation achieved using the technology. While the 
technologies for expressing identity are mainly directed towards the others, to make known who we are, the 
technologies for exploring identity are mainly directed towards the self. The goal is to help the individual (or the 
group) to search through or into their own identity; to become self-aware anthropologists. Therefore, a careful look 
at on-line environments is needed in order to distinguish between their potential to help people express and explore 

Sherry Turkle, as a psychoanalyst, distinguishes between using the Internet, more specifically MUD's, to act out and 
to work through situations. "In acting out we stage our old conflicts in new settings, we reenact our past in fruitless 
repetition. In contrast, working through usually involves a moratorium <6> on action in order to think about our habitual 
reactions in a new way".  Perhaps the key to distinguish between expression and exploration of identity is the degree 
of self reflection involved in the activity. 

Within a narrative-based constructionist approach to values, is very important to utilize technologies especially 
designed for identity exploration. The Internet opens up the possibilities to not only host Microworlds, safe 
environments to explore "what if" questions, but to also connect children from a variety of backgrounds so they can 
explore their identity and values while engaged in shared activities.

3.1 An example: Kaleidostories

A technology for identity exploration needs to have an embedded mechanism to allow the user to gain insight into 
his or her behavior. Self-representations that take a long time to build up and that allow for complex representations 
of identity are more likely to become good technologies for self-exploration. 

In order to avoid technocentrism, while designing technological tools for learning, is important to always keep in 
mind the question: "what can people do with the technology?", as opposed to "what the technology can do to 
people?". Kaleidostories [Greek kalos (beautiful) + eidos (form) + stories] is a construction kit explicitly designed in 
order to explore identity and values within a narrative-based constructionist approach. The name was chosen in 
order to reflect the metaphor of the kaleidoscope, in which loose bits of colored glass between two flat plates and 
two plane mirrors, change positions and get reflected in an endless variety of patterns. 

Kaleidostories is an on-line environment containing loose bits of colored stories from children from different 
cultures and religions. The bits are placed so that changes of the stories are reflected in a variety of identity and 
value patterns. The system runs in an NT Java-based Web-server and it is implemented in Java. Data entered by the 
children is stored and recovered from a data-base using Java servlets. The patterns visualized on the kaleidoscope 
are generated run-time by queries to the data-base. Kaleidostories is in its final stages of development and testing 
and different on-line studies and local workshops with pre-teen kids are planned for the end of the summer. 

The goal of the studies is to explore how children from different backgrounds create complex on-line representations 
of themselves by choosing a variety of role models, telling their stories, and exploring the values that they admire 
from them. The hope is that, while creating their own meaningful narratives, children will start conversations as well 
as engage in activities to explore shared values. The metaphor of the kaleidoscope allows participants to visualize 
patterns and stresses the importance that the point of view plays in assessing a situation (see figure 1).
For example, here is a made-up scenario of the flow of an experience done by Martin, a 12 year-old Argentine boy.
First, he created a complex representation of himself by making a home-page with a short autobiography, pictures of
his favorite soccer players and annotated links to other web-sites. Second, he created four role models: zeide (his
grandfather), Maradona (the Argentinean soccer player), Rabbi Katz (the young rabbi who is preparing him for his
Bar-Mitzvah) and Andy (his older cousin). For each role model he wrote why he chose them, different stories about
their lives and their favorite objects, as well as he included pictures.
For example, he accompanied the picture of an old wooden hammer with the following story: "My grandfather loved
to build things and he had a very nice hammer […] The nice thing about that hammer is that he showed us how to use it. He didn't mind that we were young and that our parents didn't want us to use it because they were afraid that we would hurt ourselves. He would always teach us how to use the hammer and then he would let us use it to build our own things. I couldn't keep the hammer after he died because my cousin kept it and he promised to lend it to me anytime I want. But I don't want it anymore because zeide is not here to help me use it."
Martin matched that story with the value "sharing" from a list of values offered by the computer. After reading
several definitions of the value "sharing" posted by other kids, Martin added his own: "Sharing is to give to others
what you would like to keep for yourself. People share because they like each other."
After doing a value-matching game with several stories and role-models, Martin engaged in the second phase of the introspective personal experience. He wrote a piece about how he would like to be seen, in the future, as a role model.
All along the process, Martin used the kaleidoscope as an interface to access other children's creations as well as to
post messages to their clipboards. For example, while looking at the kaleidoscope, he realized that there was another
kid, Stephanie, who had exactly the same star shape and color brightness. While browsing her creations he
discovered that she was American and that she also had her grandfather as a role-model. However, the reason was a
very different one. Stephanie admires him because he fought in the war. In Martin's opinion, to fight is not a value,
so he decided to contact Stephanie. The two kids engaged in a long-lasting discussion about the value of fighting in different contexts and with different goals.
The evaluation of Kaleidostories will be based not only on the archived-products done by the children, but also on
the types of conversations evoked by participating in an experience with children from very different religious and
cultural backgrounds. The hope is to evoke conversations about the inner world and to provide a forum for
thoughtful exploration of values. The goal is to provide a learning experience in which values are not only the result
of logic-based reasoning, but are depending on the narrative framing of a conflicting situation.

4. Conclusions

We are not born “being” but we “become". Neither identity, or values, are a stamp put on our forehead by our
ancestors. They are dynamically changing concepts, resulting from personal and social constructions in our
everyday lives. Different disciplines, in both the humanities and the sciences have created conceptual and
technological tools to explore the inner world. Most of this work understands values with a moral reasoning
approach, focusing on problem solving, dilemmas, and logic. With the exception of religious education, most of the
work done within this approach does not specifically link values education to identity exploration. As opposed to the
moral reasoning approach, the narrative approach proposes stories and metaphors as the basis for our moral
Within this narrative approach, I proposed a constructionist perspective to understand values as personal and social
constructions grounded in concrete contradictory and diverse identification models. Values are a dynamic context-
dependent collage of actions grounded in personal, cultural and spiritual role models and not only a static abstract
formula passed from generation to generation. My contribution is twofold, to explore a different theoretical
framework to re-think values and education, and to provide design recommendations for technological environments
to learn about our identity and the values we live by. Kaleidostories is an example of an on-line environment
designed to specifically explore, and not only express, the world of identity and to evoke conversations about
powerful humanistic ideas. Future work will explore how the tool was used by children in controlled-studies and
will report results of the research.

6. References


5. Acknowledgements

I am deeply grateful to my advisor Seymour Papert, for encouraging me to pursue an area of research that is 
personally meaningful and that has been mostly neglected by researchers in the area of computers and learning. I 
also thank Mitchel Resnick for many good conversations about these issues, Aaron Arakawa for his great work on 
the implementation of Kaleidostories, Aaron Valade for his HTML design and Claudia Urrea for her readiness to 
discuss both technical and theoretical issues, always and at any time. I am also grateful to members of the 
Epistemology & Learning Group and to Josh Bers for correcting the English in this paper and pushing me to make 
things explicit.

<1>In this paper I define identity as the zone of mediation where meaning and values are constructed. The values we live by are key aspects of our identity.
  <2>Every theological and philosophical school defines values, ethics and virtues with a different perspective. The Jewish position  that I present here is based on the existentialist philosophy of A.J. Heschel which states that one of the spiritual problems of our times is the negation of transcendence (Heschel, 1987).
  <3>This same problem, too much abstraction and not enough concreteness, is also observed as one of the main problems children  face when learning mathematics.
  <4>Mary Gergen (1997), defines this selves as “social ghosts” — people removed in time or space, fictional characters, imaginary friends and other possible entities with whom we engage in private imaginary conversations.
<5>In this paper I use the words exploration and learning as synonyms. They are the process of knowledge construction within a  social and affective context.
 <6>Sherry Turkle borrows Erik Erikson's notion of moratorium in his theories about adolescent identity development. She says: "Although the term implies a time out, what Erickson had in mind was not withdrawal. On the contrary, the adolescent moratorium is a time of intense interaction with people and ideas. It is a time of passionate friendships and experimentation."

ICLS '98 Proceedings. Georgia Tech, Atlanta, AACE.