Responding to Worldview Threats in the Classroom: An Exploratory Study of Preservice Teachers

January, 2022

Source: Journal of Teacher Education. 2022; 73(1):97-109

(Reviewed by the Portal Team)

This article reports on a theoretically driven qualitative project to equip preservice teachers with conceptual tools and specific strategies for facilitating difficult and potentially polarizing content and conversations.
The goal of this exploratory study was to familiarize participants with some of the root causes of worldview defensiveness so that they might respond to, or perhaps even mitigate, harmful reactions in their classrooms.

Research Method
This project’s focus was how preservice teachers (aged 20– 36) might operationalize insights from terror management theory (TMT) in a classroom setting.
A pilot study was undertaken to determine the content for the main study.

Pilot Study
For the pilot study, there were eight participants who were social studies majors in a Bachelor of Education program in Secondary Education at a research university in Western Canada.
These students were in their advanced professional term.
The participants had engaged with TMT during their social studies curriculum and instruction class before their final teaching practicum: a 1-hr lesson and then references throughout the course (e.g., linked to discussion about teaching difficult knowledge and contested issues).
Using a deductive approach with consistent initial questions and variable follow-up questions (Brenner, 2006), the lead researcher conducted individual, semi-structured interviews, posing such questions as:
To what extent were you able to identify students in a state of worldview threat? In what contexts did you consider using TMT with your students?
Did you use TMT while teaching during your placement?
If yes, what do you think was the relative success of this attempt?
If no, what supports (if any) might you need to engage with TMT in your classroom?
The transcripts were analyzed and an open coding system was developed by the research team (Strauss & Corbin, 1998).
The pilot then informed the group training sessions for the main study.
The researchers revisited the pilot study data set and added relevant utterances into the main study.

Main Study
Participants were in a Bachelor of Education program in Secondary Education at a major research university in an urban context in western Canada and the 17 who completed the study were from a variety of major and minor subject areas and were recruited to participate during their introductory professional term, during which they undertake their first teaching practicum.
The research team ran the study (group training and focus groups) twice over two terms (Fall 2018 and Winter 2019).
Participants chose pseudonyms for themselves.
This main study focused on the research questions: How might we prevent ourselves, as teachers, from treating a student harshly (or with dismissiveness) when their worldview clashes with ours? What might we need to do with our classes before worldview-threatening lessons begin to mitigate defensive compensatory reactions? During group training sessions in the latter part of their coursework prior to their teaching practicum, participants engaged in a 2-hr lecture on TMT with a Q&A during and after, which included one video on the basics of TMT (Braincraft, 2015).
Together, participants explored the nature of worldview threat, the forms that defensive compensatory reactions can take in the classroom (e.g., derogation), possible mitigation of those reactions, and how worldview threat can be an interpretive lens to understand historical events and processes (e.g., genocide, intercultural conflict).
During their practicum placements, participants had the option of emailing the lead investigator with questions and/or comments, which several did.
At the end of their teaching terms, the participants met once again in a semi-structured focus group setting for 1½ hr. involving the participants discussing how and why (or not) they were able to engage with TMT in their classrooms as well as the perceived effects.
The authors began by reminding them that they were just as interested in when TMT was not useful as they were when TMT was useful.
Next, they asked:
In what contexts did you consider using TMT with your students?
The follow-up questions were as follows: Did you end up choosing to use TMT in those contexts, why or why not?
If yes, what do you think was the relative success of this attempt?
Did you use TMT as you planned your lessons, or on the fly, or both? Why or why not?
They then asked, Can you see TMT as useful in any additional contexts?
They also asked them about their observations of their students: To what extent were you able to identify students in a state of worldview threat?
Finally, they asked participants what supports they might want to help them engage with TMT in the future, should they choose to do so.
Because of the focus group format, participants at times built off each other’s comments instead of each question being asked of each participant.
No one was obligated to speak, and the authors encouraged a casual, collegial atmosphere.

Coding and Analysis
Audio was transcribed from both the training sessions and the focus groups before being coded.
Through reading and re-reading the transcripts, significant details became more nuanced, and new insights emerged.
Dramaturgical coding was then utilized, which aims to perceive “life as performance and its participants as characters in a social drama” (Saldaña, 2014, p. 28).
Given the exploratory nature of the project paired with the emotional component of engaging with existentialist ideas, the authors chose a coding strategy that would analyze the project as a social drama.
Coding was accomplished by hand through examining and reflecting upon each line of transcript and identifying whether the statement belonged to one, several, or none of six categories.

Findings and discussion
By approaching classrooms through a TMT lens, teachers are able to use insights gleaned from TMT to prevent and mitigate defensive moves stemming from worldview threat.
Furthermore, educators might begin to develop TMT as a pedagogical attitude.
Finally, TMT as a lens also helps students and teachers alike understand historical and contemporary situations.

TMT in Classroom Discussions
Allowing worldviews to be threatened, and navigating this tense space, entails finding ways to be able to work through contentious conversations and confronting the difficult emotions and defensive reactions that take place when such conversations occur.
Before engaging with potentially worldview-threatening information, teachers could employ TMT to anticipate the emergence and manifestation of defensive compensatory reactions.
From other educational scholarship it is clear that some dissonance and discomfort is comorbid with breaking down structures of oppression (e.g., Howard, 2003), and so educators must find ways to sit with troubling emotions without allowing them to become troublesome; for example, “[t]eacher education must feel uncomfortable talking about White supremacy and the daily manifestations of Whiteness in order to achieve the ideal of antiracism” (Matias et al., 2016, p. 15).
Before these troubling discussions ensue, educators could introduce the principles of TMT to their students either directly (i.e., teaching them about the theory itself) or indirectly (e.g., explaining the principles of the theory without naming it as such).
The key is to develop a language with students to talk about worldview threat before it happens, anticipate when such worldview threats might occur, and then revisit the initial discussions with students to prepare them for the discomfort they might experience.

TMT as an Interpretive Lens
As a curricular lens TMT is an innovative contribution in the context of education as a lens to understand historical and contemporary situations.
Researchers and participants cocreated applications for a variety of subject areas.
In language arts, literature classes, and drama classes, worldview threat can help explain character motivation (e.g., Harrington, 1969) as well as why students might have resistances to portraying or engaging with certain characters.
In the sciences, art, and music, worldview threat explains the difficulty in changing paradigms or when our sense of reality is stabilized (Solomon et al., 2015)—why there is so much resistance to new approaches and understandings, whether that be the excommunication of Galileo, climate change denial, or conversations regarding for/by whom art is made (e.g., shifts in Renaissance art) and what constitutes good art/ music, as well as mathematical principles that challenge our perceptions (e.g., probability and the Gambler’s Fallacy).
Social studies perhaps provides the most obvious curricular ties to TMT.
Much of the historical component of social studies classes focus on conflict (e.g., war and civil strife), and in the Canadian context of this study, for example, a TMT lens can help students grapple with the compensatory reactions of assimilation and annihilation that are embodied in the Indian Residential School system, as well as ongoing derogation and accommodation/appropriation, all of which may be explained (but not excused) by worldview threat and defense (van Kessel et al., 2020).
Judging from participants’ experience, learning TMT has greater success upon repeated exposure, in groups, with professionals willing and able to lead discussions about TMT.
Participants most comfortable teaching and otherwise engaging with TMT had initial instruction in the theory and then opportunities to revisit it in their specific teaching areas later in their coursework. Supplementary materials would need to be available for preservice teachers and their instructors, and so to this end researchers and participants have been contributing lesson plans to an open-access educational resource website associated with the project (van Kessel, 2018–2021).
The most-needed component, however, appears to be the time and space to wrestle with existential concerns with a skilled facilitator.
If educators and students (and people more generally) want to prevent treating each other harshly or with dismissiveness when worldview clashes, they might need to gain knowledge of, and tactics to deal with, defensiveness and avoidance.
It is important to note that TMT as a pedagogical attitude does not devalue any emotional responses.
Instead, TMT as an attitude involves keeping emotional responses in perspective.
Furthermore, by allowing ourselves and others to experience existential anxiety, there is an opportunity to feel less anxiety from socially constructed sources (e.g., status, money), giving people an opportunity to foster immortality projects that do not adversely harm anyone.

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Updated: Jun. 01, 2022