Teach your kids about the election with advice from Teacher Ed Hally, PhD

For Parents Oct 8, 2020

The presidential election is not just an important time for adults!

Every four years, it's also a special opportunity for teachers and parents to engage kids in deeper learning about civics, democracy and American government.

With its tense emotions and complex issues, though, teaching about the election can also be a serious challenge for teachers and parents.

To help you navigate this season with your young learner, we spoke to Outschool Teacher Edmond David Hally, PhD, affectionately known as Teacher Ed.

Teacher Ed offers Outschool classes on social studies, science and literature.

Ed has taught across many subjects, from elementary school up to the university level, and he is currently an Associate Professor at Ferrum College in Virginia.

We asked Ed to share his best advice and resources for families looking to explore civics education, democracy and the election.

Hi Ed! November 3rd is coming soon, and parents are wondering how to talk their kids about the election. Any advice?

It's important for kids to understand the difference between the Electoral College and the popular vote, because many of them may remember the outcome of the 2016 election and might wonder why Hilary Clinton lost, despite more people voting for her.

Ed teaches one of his live Outschool classes on social studies.

The way I've explained is that each state is worth a certain number of "points."  You can win a state by a few votes or a few million and get all the points for that state. Whoever gets to 270 "points" wins.  

I would also mention that there are other important races on November 3, too. Candidates are on the ballot for the House of Representatives, the Senate as well as many gubernatorial and state legislature seats.  In many ways, these elections affect our  lives more than the Presidential election.

How can families discuss the divisiveness we see in politics?

I teach my college freshmen that most people in both parties have similar goals: they want to see their families safe, they want good jobs, and they want to be proud of their country.  They often have different ideas about how to achieve these goals.  

Ed leads kids through one of his live learning games about the tragedy of the commons.

Even if some people express themselves in heated ways, the majority of people aren't loud, rude or opinionated about politics. They have good friends in both political parties and similar overall hopes for the country.  Don't let the loudest, angriest people you see on news broadcasts leave you to believe that everyone is like that.

I teach my college freshmen that most people in both parties have similar goals - they want to see their families safe, they want good jobs, and they want to be proud of their country.

When it comes to kids talking about politics, I strongly disagree with the idea that you don't talk about politics in polite company.  In part, I think part of the reason the country seems so divided is that discussion of politics is often taboo and that allows us to fall victim to the echo chamber.  

Since we tend to mostly hang out with people that already agree with us, it becomes easy to see one side as "good" and the other as "bad."  Whenever I talk to people with different political beliefs, I often try to legitimately understand why they believe what they believe.  

It gives me lots of hope for our country to think that people that vote differently from me still want many of the same basic things that I want.

How should parents explain debates to their kids? Should kids watch?

I'm not a huge fan of debates.  They've become less about substance and more about snappy one liners and gotcha moments.  

Younger kids may want to watch if they strongly support one candidate, but may not understand a lot of the strategy of the debates.  For older kids, the debates are an interesting lesson in rhetoric and communication. They're not a great way to learn about the candidates' beliefs.

Ed explains the differences between the political parties during one of his Outschool classes.

If kids want a more accurate idea of the candidates' beliefs, I recommend visiting the candidates' websites and other resources like Project Vote Smart and isidewith.com

How do you approach teaching a class on elections?

I've found that games are the best way to teach about political processes like elections.  Many of the games I created for my elementary school classroom I've developed for my college classrooms and eventually brought to Outschool.  

Currently, my favorite games/classes include:

What other election and politics resources do you recommend to families with young learners?

  • fivethirtyeight.com - This is the premiere forecasting website on the Internet.  It includes easy to understand charts and graphs that parents can discuss with their children. Nate Silver also does a great job explaining how they make sense of polling data.  They do forecasts for the Senate and major sports, as well.
  • 270towin.com - With this resource, students can experiment with different outcomes in the Electoral College. For example, if the Democrats win North Carolina, but the Republicans take Wisconsin, what paths to victory does either candidate have?
  • isidewith.com - This nonpartisan site is a good way to see which candidate you most closely match up to.  After answering a series of survey questions, you can see what percent of the issues you and President Trump and Vice President Biden agree on.  It also includes major third party candidates.
  • politifact.com - During a heated election, you hear many claims.  Some of them may be true; others may be exaggerations or even lies.  How can you tell which is which?  Politifact employs nonpartisan journalists and researchers to dissect the most widely heard political statements and rate them on their "truth-o-meter."  Statements can be on a scale from true to false (including ratings like "half true" for statements that contain nuggets of truth) to my favorite rating of "pants on fire" - for false statements that are so unbelievably false that they may be harmful.  For each claim, an exhaustive report is done to explain the reason behind the rating.

For more on Ed's classes visit his teacher profile page using the button below: