Lasana D. Kazembe, an assistant professor at the School of Education IUPUI, prepares new teachers to enter the workforce. He also studies how race, culture and power can influence education and childhood development at a time when more than half of the roughly 50 million children who attend U.S. public schools are nonwhite, unlike most of their teachers. It is more important than ever, he says, that K-12 teachers develop the cultural awareness, empathy and an anti-racist disposition to effectively teach students from diverse backgrounds. According to the latest official data, about four in five public school teachers are white. This underrepresentation is especially acute for Black male teachers, Kazembe says. While one in four teachers are men, merely 2 percent are Black men. But Kazembe says research indicates that students of color benefit from being taught by people who look like them. While many of the college students he teaches are white and describe themselves as colorblind, Kazembe says it is more important than ever for them to acquire a serious understanding of racism and this nation’s multicultural history. Researchers have found that claims of racial colorblindness can actually function as a form of racism, masking racial biases and negative cultural assumptions about people of color – particularly Black people and Latinos. Kazembe says future teachers will become better teachers if they leverage work to become anti-racist. The research shows that students benefit academically when their teachers possess cultural awareness, have high expectations for all their students and believe that all their students have the potential to learn and succeed regardless of their personal backgrounds. However, to get there, Kazembe says, teachers must first transform themselves.
When it comes to conducting classes this fall, colleges are offering in-person classes, remote classes, or some combination of the two. But researchers at IU, who focus on the design of educational spaces, believe there’s a fourth option that’s not being given its due: outdoor spaces, such as open-air tents. In fact, Tracy Birdwell, program director of the Mosaic Initiative at IU Bloomington, says from a learning-space design perspective, the outdoors can be an effective way of maintaining in-person instruction, even when temperatures drop later in the fall. So far, Rice University, Amherst College and Eckerd College have committed to using outdoor spaces including open-air tents, temporary outdoor buildings and simply outdoor spaces. Birdwell says several studies support the idea that being outside helps students learn. Studies also suggest that students remember more information when they learn in an outdoor setting. Tripp Harris, a research assistant at the Mosaic Initiative, adds that students’ mental health also may benefit from spending time outdoors, a finding that is especially relevant for students who are attending college amid the stress of COVID-19. Both researchers say while colleges continue to wrestle with whether to have students on campus in regular buildings or learning remotely at home, outdoor learning spaces could prove to be a better option.