How to teach four-year-olds about Nelson Mandela (and other lessons from Whittier Strong)

For Teachers Jun 10, 2019

You know what you don’t typically hear?

You don’t typically hear anyone suggest that teaching is easy.

But a few things that could make it even more challenging include teaching young children, teaching them about mature topics, and teaching those topics in a way that makes them truly interested and engaged.

Yet that’s exactly what Outschool teacher Whittier Strong does every day. Not only does Whittier make sure to present his course material in a lens most interesting to young learners, he makes sure to specifically craft his teaching persona to best match the group he’s with.

Whittier teaches a class on 1950s voting simulations and the history of US voting rights. The class leads learners through a study of how various populations have been cut out of the voting process throughout history. This is something that traditional history classes may often omit.

Recently, several learners younger than the 14-18 year-old age bracket registered for the class. Because Whittier already knew these learners from other classes, he thought they would have a positive experience discussing these challenging topics.

What Whitter didn’t know was the personal connection these youngsters had to the class: their grandfather was imprisoned in a Japanese internment camp during World War II, and had rarely, if ever, spoken about the experience to the kids.

According to feedback their mom gave Whittier, this was a topic their grandfather did not like to talk about, but it was very important for the kids to understand. Whittier tells about the great impact this class had on the learners, saying,“They said, ‘When we turn 18, we’re registering to vote.’ And I said, ‘Mission Accomplished.’”

Whittier Strong teaches a popular class about the history of voting rights in America.

Encouraging families to pick up the ball of learning

Whittier also teaches a class about Freedom Day: a day honoring the first ever non-racial democratic elections in South Africa, which happened in 1994. This day is also about celebrating the life of Nelson Mandela and his fight for equal rights in South Africa. The class, surprisingly, is designed for learners ages 3-7.

“So how on Earth do you talk about the life of Nelson Mandela to that age range?” Whittier asked himself.

In this case, Whittier calls on someone he considers a “personal hero,” Fred “Mr.” Rogers, who was known for discussing difficult topics with youngsters with respect, honesty, and mindfulness. Whittier says he tries to channel Mr. Rogers in his teaching persona when leading learners through more mature topics like Freedom Day.

Once again, this class led learners to continue the discussion with their families after class, or as Whittier calls it “picking up the ball” of learning. The class allows students to explore apartheid in an approachable way for young learners and to understand Mandela’s role in expanding opportunities and rights for people of color in South Africa.

“And some parents said, I didn't think that it was possible to talk about those kinds of things with a four year old,” Whittier said. “If I can start a conversation that's difficult for the parent to start, but that it can continue. Then I feel like I've done my job.”

Children are the wisest among us

Western culture often de-prioritizes the experiences of the very young and very old. Whittier, however, has noticed that,“the people thought the wisest people amongst us are the children and the elders, and they're the people who are given the least respect.”

Whittier tries to honor and respect the status of young learners through the simple act of listening. He does this by “giving learners a space to exercise their own authority and exercise their own voice.” Through this process, he believes young learners can recognize their place within the broader human community.

Part of Whittier’s motivation is to help youngsters deal with the challenges of our current world. “I think, ‘what can I do in my very tiny way to equip these future adults to manage the unfathomable challenges ahead of them?’ And I think it takes curiosity and fearlessness, encouraging kids to try to answer a question even if the answer is wrong,” Whittier said.

More than just the right answer

This point, encouraging learners to speak their minds even if they are unsure of the correct answer, is essential to Whittier’s teaching philosophy. So much of education places an emphasis on finding the right answer, that many teachers, parents and young learners can lose sight of an arguably more important aspect of education: the process of arriving at an answer.

“Curiosity is essential, and I think it comes naturally to most kids, but somewhere between puberty in college, the vast majority of human beings just completely lose their sense of curiosity,” Whittier said.

To help illustrate this concept, Whittier likes to distinguish between adults and grownups. While adults “retain their curiosity, retain their compassion, retain their creativity,” grownups take on fixed identities without those essential traits. Part of a high-quality education, then, is to allow learners to grapple with new information in a way that encourages maturity without limiting the perspectives or possibilities a learner has when encountering the new information.

The survival of our species depends on this

Because Outschool is a global community of learners, Whittier knows that the youngsters he teaches will come to him from places with varying levels of acceptance and open dialogue.

“Children need to understand that people are different from them and that those people are equally worthwhile,” Whittier said.

Ultimately, Whittier wants to instill in youngsters a trait that is truly essential for our existence: interdependence. “We are a social species, and that is what got us this far. That is what created the Sumerians and all the other great civilizations that got us to this point,” Whittier said.

Compassion, creativity, and curiosity are such a central focus of Whittier’s class for a simple reason: “that’s what will help this species survive.”

If you know a youngster who is fueled by curiosity, then you can browse Whittier’s courses to explore more.

To get access to hundreds of creative classes taught by other inspired teachers, get your free Outschool account today.

Gerard Dawson

Gerard Dawson is a teacher, parent and writer for Outschool.