Education Social Studies Curriculum Theory
Cathryn van Kessel is an Associate Professor at the University of Alberta in Secondary Social Studies Education.
Cathryn was born and raised in the Edmonton area, but lived and studied in Vancouver for almost a decade. Cathryn’s career as an educator began in 2005 with a move back to her original city, teaching junior and senior high social studies and Latin in Edmonton until 2015. Three of these years included serving as a vice-principal, and then subsequently she continued teaching part-time while undertaking the initial stages of her doctoral studies at the University of Alberta. She accepted an academic position in the Faculty of Education in 2016.
She holds the following degrees:
Cathryn currently manages two Open Educational Resources: The Grim Educator (2018-2021) and Intellectual Influences in Contemporary Curriculum Study (2021).
Research interests include: conceptualizations of evil in the context of education, social studies education, curriculum theory, teaching for social change, philosophy in/of education, nonphilosophy, intersectional perspectives and the concept of radical love from Black feminist scholarship, teacher education, popular culture, existential philosophy and psychology (including, but not limited to terror management theory), and posthuman theories.
While her doctoral work uncovered a variety of conceptualizations of evil held by Grade 11 social studies students in relation to philosophy and political theory, research since then has branched off into in-depth explorations and applications of particular definitions of (and questions about) evil. Because of her passion for the topic and deeply held belief in the urgent need for less harmful social relations, she is committed to publishing open-access whenever possible.
Her 2018-2020 SSHRC Insight Development Grant project focused on applying research from social psychology regarding unconscious defensive processes that prevent us from tolerating opposing worldviews. This qualitative research project involved preservice social studies teachers learning and implementing terror management theory (TMT). Through focus groups before and after their practicum placements, as well as reflective journals during their classroom experience and individual interviews in a subsequent year, we explored how TMT can be a theoretical basis to foster respectful engagements with opposing worldviews, including creating this video and this poster for classroom use on worldview defences.
Her current projects are focusing on Baudrillard's idea of "Symbolic Evil" in the context of sociopolitical changes in history as well as possible changes unfolding now as well as how teachers are thinking about these significant changes.
For more about Cathryn and some of her research interests, please feel free to listen to the following podcast interviews:
Cathryn's teaching style tends to blend direct instruction with small group activities and discussion with an overarching goal to provide students with a sense of the landscape of the topic at hand, but then to provide them with the opportunity to extend our inquiries beyond what she claims to know. Specifically, she have been focusing on student engagement, deep intellectual questioning, as well as safe/brave dialogue and debate.
2018 to 2020
In this SSHRC Insight Development Grant project, I am drawing from research in social psychology that has illuminated unconscious defensive processes that prevent us from tolerating opposing worldviews. Terror management theory (TMT) recognizes that human motivation is multifaceted and layered, and yet our terror of death is the worm at the core. All animals seek to avoid death, but we know that humans can experience existential terror even in the absence of an immediate threat. Thus, we create defensive shields against this terror, including our cultural worldview, which tells us how we belong to a group that will endure after us. The problem with rigidly adhering to a cultural worldview to curb our existential terror is that all worldviews are somewhat arbitrary, and thus require continual validation from others in order remain believable. Therefore, exposure to cultures of people with alternate worldviews, especially those that are radically different from one’s own, potentially undermines one’s faith in their worldview and the psychological protection it provides, thus triggering defensive compensatory actions like derogation as well as attempts to assimilate or even annihilate. TMT has been supported by hundreds of experiments in multiple countries. Yet, until this project it has not been employed in an educational context.
This qualitative research project involves preservice social studies teachers learning and implementing terror management theory (TMT). Through focus groups before and after their practicum placements, as well as reflective journals during their classroom experience and individual interviews my research assistants and I explored how TMT can be an historical lens in a social studies classroom, as well as a theoretical basis to foster respectful engagements with opposing worldviews in any subject area.
If you cannot access an article listed below and would like a copy, please email me.Link to the Grim Educator open educational resource (OER)