Why TCK Researchers and American Ed Reformers Should Talk

In my previous post, I referenced a book that I’ve been asked to read in preparation for graduate school this fall. The book is called Rac(e)ing to Class: Confronting Poverty and Race in Schools and Classrooms by H. Richard Milner IV.

One aspect that I appreciated most about this book was the willingness to dive deep into a conversation about the causes of educational inequity and how different systems within the United States perpetuate that inequity. Rather than positing that all students, regardless of background or specific need, should be forced to succeed within a potentially problematic educational system, Milner encourages readers, educators, and policy-makers to look at the big picture of education and how different systems in the United States interact with each other. Moreover, Milner avoids pointing a finger at any one group and blaming them for destroying public education. Readers leave the book following Milner’s own asset-based thinking, and considering how all parties involved can contribute to education.

One of the challenges for educators and policy-makers alike that presented itself throughout the book was the diversity of needs and circumstances of students. A recent study published by the National Center for Education Statistics showed that, in 2012, enrollment in public schools across the United States consisted of 51% white students, 16% black students, 24% Hispanic students, 5% Asian/Pacific Island, 1% American Indian/Alaska Native, and 3% or two or more races.[1] I’m not writing this to argue that this is good or bad in anyway—I’m citing this statistics to indicate the level of diversity present within American public schools, and the fact that, according to the same study, this diversity is likely to increase. It’s also important to understand that the definition of race extends far beyond simply the physical definition, but also includes social constructs, legal constructs, and historical constructs.[2] Thus, the implications that race has for diversity and equity in education are huge.

This diversity necessarily leads to challenges in the classroom. Teachers enter classrooms full of students from very different backgrounds than their own. The curriculum cannot encompass all of the learning needs of students from such varied backgrounds. Despite attending school in the same country, each of these students have such unique stories that a single curriculum cannot possibly fulfill all learning needs, not to mention the impact of implicit curriculum that schools construct and teach students through school culture.[3] Milner quotes A. Ede in saying that “the diverse ethnic and cultural makeup of today’s classrooms makes it unlikely that one single curriculum will meet the needs and interests of all students.”[4] Education cannot and should not be a “one size fits all” profession.

So where does that leave us? With the increasing diversity and increasing needs of students, there’s a lot to improve in the education system. And as I ventured further into Milner’s book, I could stop thinking: TCK researchers and US education reformers should really be talking.

Why? Why should a group of researchers that focuses their study of children who live globally mobile lives be communicating with researchers who are focused on education reform in the United States?

In many ways, TCK research and education research focuses on the same things. Education is more than just a transmission of knowledge; rather, it’s a development of skills necessary for a child to succeed in life. Within the past decade, there’s also been an increased emphasis on areas such as social and emotional learning (SEL) as supplemental to any content curriculum. Additionally, schools transmit culture and cultural practices. As content continues to share the spotlight with SEL, child development, and implicit social constructions within the education context, education will still need to be concerned with children’s cultural and identity development.

Much of TCK research seems powered by the same energy: a desire to understand the child and identity development of TCKs in order to understand outcomes and equip TCKs to impact their world. Especially in the past few years, there’s been more emphasis among TCKs themselves to use their own understanding of their own identity to ignite change in the world (take Tayo Rockson’s UYDMag for one example). The emphasis that education reform needs to place on understand the needs of students within their unique cultural and identity development contexts is similar to that which TCK researchers must place on TCKs.

Though I have no data to support this, it would seem that many TCK researchers are TCKs themselves. This means that TCKs have developed a certain set of skills while navigating cross-cultural transitions. Among these skills are intercultural communication, linguistic ability, mediation, diplomacy and the ability to manage diversity…”[5] With the increased diversity among public skills, it would make sense that people who have developed skills in crossing cultures and contexts be working within these environments.

Finally, much in the same way that a TCK crosses cultures between the their parents’ home culture and their host culture, creating a third culture, teachers and educators must also cross cultures. I realize that most educators probably would not equate the concept of a classroom culture to a country or ethnic group’s culture and societal norms, but I think it’s worth drawing a connection. Teachers create a set of expectations within their classroom, bridging the diversity of their students’ home cultures and the school culture. Granted, the difference is typically not as pronounced as the difference between a passport country’s culture and a host country’s culture, but similarities could exist and might be worth exploring further (or if I’m imagining the similarity, maybe we should pick a different word to describe classroom environment besides classroom “culture”).

Not that I think that working with TCK researchers would be the silver bullet for education reform and solve all its problems. In many ways, American TCKs are ill-equipped to approach education reform issues in the United States because few of them have actually experienced the American public education systems, among other reasons. But the lessons learned and approaches that TCK researchers take to further their own research could help to frame a conversation and maybe solutions for education reformers in the United States.

[1] Racial/Ethnic Enrollment in Public Schools, National Center for Education Statistics, May 2015, http://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/indicator_cge.asp.

[2] Milner, 8.

[3] Milner, 57.

[4] A. Ede, “Scripted Curriculum: Is it a Prescription for Success?” Childhood Education 83, no. 1 (2006): 31, quoted in Milner, 58.

[5] Norma McCaig, September, 1994, Growing up with a world view, Foreign Service Journal, quoted by Wendy Stultz, Global and Domestic Nomads or Third Culture Kid: Who Are They and What the University Needs to Know, http://www.colostate.edu/Depts/SAHE/JOURNAL2/2003/Stultz.htm.


On Making That Difference…

As you’ve probably gathered by now, a recurring theme at the FIGT conference was making a difference in the world.  The past few decades have produced an incredible amount of research into the impacts of global mobility on a person.  With this research comes a better understanding of ourselves, and with that understanding comes an ability to make a difference.  We can’t make a difference until we know who we are.

On a global scale, it seems that the world is also moving toward understanding differences.  Instead of being fearful of differences, our world is beginning to value them and in some cases celebrate them. Centuries ago, fearing differences was necessary for survival.  Now, however, fearing diversity limits expansion.  The value of diversity has slowly stepped into a central role in many organizations and networks.  This is probably partially due to the increase in globalization and the fact that in so many aspects of life, understanding and valuing diversity is necessary for moving forward and succeeding.  (Note: I did not say we’re there yet…events like Ferguson and ISIS prove otherwise.  But we are making incredible stride toward it.  After all, the Cold War didn’t blow up the world.)

As we understand the people of the world better, suddenly people are hearing voices of communities who before did not have one.  People seek to understand.  And with those voices comes the power to impact change.  It’s the idea of using your difference to make a difference.

With the power of having a voice comes an immense responsibility.  Because despite a desire to understand, it’s still easy to misuse the voice that we now have.  Examples of this plague the new today, from Boko Haram to the Syria.  When there are so many perspectives of “right” in our postmodern world, sometimes understanding doesn’t lead to progress.

So what do we do? Do we stop trying because we don’t see progress? Or because our neighbor doesn’t agree with us?  Giving up only perpetuates the problem.  As I’ve thought about what it means to impact change, I’ve settled on three things that I want to keep in mind for myself…

1. Sometimes smaller is better.  When I was teaching in a high poverty school, I quickly grew frustrated by how the system didn’t work for my students–so much so that i forgot about my students amidst the system.  It was impossible for me to change an entire system of education that didn’t work for them.  But I could help them understand how they could use the system to share their voice with the world.  And some days, it was just one student that I helped, but it was still worth it.

2. Is it hurting someone?  Thinking about changing something, we should always be asking ourselves what the short-term and long-term consequences of our actions will be.  If the consequences of something will hurt an entire community, then it’s probably not a good idea.

Unfortunately, actions and programs and initiatives are usually not completely clear-cut on whether they will ultimately hurt or help a community.  That’s where diversity is important.  If only one community’s voice is represented in any decision, then there is no way all interests will be protected.  And while compromise comes into play in any decision, every voice should be heard.

3. Is it helping someone?  Not just me, but other people?  Am I giving more than I’m expecting to receive back?  In our capitalistic society, that doesn’t necessarily make sense.  But sometimes I know that I need to be more concerned with the people around me than what I’m getting out of something.  And if my actions and voice and desire to impact change can benefit someone else in a positive way, then that’s awesome.

So my challenge to myself, and maybe to readers, is to make sure that change is impacted responsibly, and that each voice is heard.

When Diversity is More than Race

This past weekend I’ve had the privilege of attending the Families in Global Transition Conference in Washington DC. I’ve been tasked with writing articles about each of the sessions that I’ve attended. Those articles to come.

However, I’ve also had the immense privilege of attending keynote sessions that I am not writing articles about and have inspired some thought-provoking reflections. I hope no one gets mad at me for writing about sessions that they are also covering. So, here’s the first set of thoughts:


“I called Crayola marketing and said I could help,” Teja Arboleda chuckled in his opening keynote address. “The problem is that race has no bearing on culture. There is no such thing as a multicultural crayon!”

Those words resonated with me. As a white TCK raised in Asia, people who look at me make certain assumptions based on the color of my skin:

  • She’s American
  • She like American things (whether music, food, movies, etc.)
  • She knows about America

After seven years in the states, it’s mostly true—I know a lot about America. I tend to like American music and food. If I don’t say something about that time I traveled to the Philippines for a soccer tournament, then no one would know that I spent the majority of my childhood overseas.

But culture is more than the color of my skin. Culture is more than the color of anyone’s skin.

“Just because you eat noodles doesn’t make you Italian,” Teja added a few minutes later, reflecting on his personal experience as a multiracial child growing up across several countries.

I had to laugh a little, thinking about the times when people marveled over my use of chopsticks and knowing that this skill did not make me Chinese.

But his words spoke an immense amount of truth. They spoke to the fact that there is a deeper difference and a deeper diversity than what is visible to the naked eye.

Previously that day I had the privilege of sitting in a small group conversation with Ruth Van Reken (author of Third Culture Kids: The Experience of Growing Up Among Worlds). In discussing communication boundaries across cultures, our group had identified the impact that both race, ethnicity, and humor can have, among other things.

As we reflected on the conversation, Ruth commented, “Diversity here is taught via externals. People are afraid to go deeper because it’s offensive.”

On the first day of FIGT, two people had touched on what I had been trying to build in my classroom through education—the fact that diversity extends beyond the color of skins and into the being of people and who they are.

I thought of the high school social studies classroom I had taught for two years. I remembered how students had certain conceptions of me and their classmates because of the color of their skin, and how challenging it was to undo the engrained stereotypes. And then I remembered how, when we got to the Civil Rights unit or Japanese internment in US history, the room would get quiet and suddenly a little bit more interested.

“But they were people,” one student said, and I had known that in that moment we had cross that barrier of diversity based on race vs. diversity based on value of the human being.

Really, race no longer defines culture…not anymore. It probably used to, when people didn’t move around and lived in relatively the same location their whole life. But with the age of globalization and the way that countries like the United States have become “melting pots” (sorry, the social studies teacher in me still kicks in), race can no longer define culture.

And this is good. Because people are more than the color of skin. Culture is more than the color of skin. Diversity is a celebration of strengths and qualities that a person brings more than skin color.

But it can’t stop there. Because when we look past skin color and see the diversity of cultures that does not correspond with race/ethnicity, we also begin to recognize what makes us all human, and the needs and wants the go with that. As van Reken said, “You’re special, but you’re not that special. Everyone has shared experiences.”