A Constructionist Approach to Values through On-line Narrative Tools
MIT Media Laboratory
E15-320A, 20 Ames St.
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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
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
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
This section explores the plurality of meanings that the word "value"
conveys. Later, it presents two different
2. Different Approaches to Values in Education
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
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.
The American Heritage dictionary defines value: “a principle, standard
or quality considered worthwhile or
2.1 The moral reasoning approach
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
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.
A technology for identity exploration needs to have an embedded
mechanism to allow the user to gain insight into
3.1 An example: Kaleidostories
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
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).
Figure 1: Each child is represented by a red star with a
growing number of points. The star changes its shape
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
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
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.
according to how many role models are shared between the logged user and
the other participants in the activity.
The color of the star changes according to the number of shared values.
At any point, children can look at the kaleidoscope and browse the creations
of other participants as well as engage in on-line discussions and post
messages. Kaleidostories was designed so children can participate in a
variety of both on-line and off-line learning experiences:
introspecting: children use different multimedia to create an on-line
portrait of themselves including stories,
pictures, links to other web-sites, etc.
extrospecting: children reach out to their families and communities
and interview their own role models. Later
they create their role-model's portraits, either by editing the
interviews or by imagining conversations with
them. They tell stories about them, photograph their favorite objects
and make relevant links to other sites on
the Web. An important aspect of this experience is that the stories
written by the children must reflect the
characteristics (values) that they most admire from their role
concretizing: the system offers a list of abstract universal values
(such as friendship, justice, responsibility,
etc.) and children have to link them with relevant personal stories
and definitions that ground those abstract
concepts in concrete situations.
comparing: children can explore each other's role models and compare
values and definitions while using the
kaleidoscope to visualize shared values and identity patterns.
communicating: children can contact each other and engage in a-synchronous
communications about both the process and the products within the
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.
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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
<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.