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.


Confessions of an Aspiring Grad Student

The same day that I concluded my full time job I received an email from the dean of my graduate school, sent out en masse to incoming students. Given that I’m currently unfamiliar with all of the names associated with the administration at my school, it took me a moment to figure out why this name had graced my mailbox with its presence.

I opened it and began to read. It began with a welcome to the school and to engaging in continuing education.

And as I read on, I have to confess: I inwardly groaned. Halfway through the email, we as readers were directed to a link where we could download recommended summer reading, entitled Rac(e)ing to Class: Confronting Poverty and Race in Schools and Classrooms by H. Richard Milner IV (2015). The purpose of the reading is to open a dialog around diversity, and explore the link between poverty and educational inequity.

Yes, despite the fact that my career path has led me to confront poverty through education, I still groaned that I was being asked to read, what in my mind, was simply another book about how if we can simply provide impoverished children with a quality education, then America will be better and all poverty will magically evaporate.

This was my fear: in my few short years in the education sector, it has seemed that education reformists have been preaching the same message. If we provide all students with a quality education, they say, they will get a good job and make enough money to provide for their families. Once this happens, poverty will be erased, and somehow we will also eliminate the racism that has been rooted in our country for hundreds of years.

I realize this is an oversimplification of what is being presented about a very complex issue, but many days, especially while I was classroom teaching, this is what it sounded like.

That message never sat well with me. Here’s why:

  • First, it revolves around money and financial security being the measure of success. And accomplishment. While I believe that no one should have to live in poverty, I think that focusing success solely on monetary gain is short-sighted and empty. There are many more things to life than accumulating material wealth.
  • Second, the message implies that we require students to learn and change within an educational system, without examining broader system that may itself be flawed. The United States, and even the world, is not what it was 150 years ago when the current educational system was modeled after industrialization.
  • Finally, the current educational system itself transmits certain cultural expectations that may or may not be in alignment with a student’s own culture. Not to say that any parts of the system is undeniably wrong, but there should at least be serious examination of the system itself before we expect students of different cultures to adhere to it.

So when I downloaded the book onto my Kindle that night and finally manipulated the text on the PDF to be of readable size, I did so with a certain amount of apprehension, expecting another overly simplified account of how education is the key to success in life for humanity.

To say I was pleasantly surprised would be an understatement.

Five pages in, I felt like someone had read my thoughts and responded to them on paper. It was a similar feeling to the one I felt when I walked into Salon CDE at the FIGT Conference in DC this past March—without knowing me, someone had understood my concerns and was responding to them.

“Those who are in schools are coerced into assimilating into contexts that do not allow them to build the types of attitudes, dispositions, skills, and knowledge necessary for them to analyze, critique, and contribute to their communicates when education is in place,” I read on page three of the book.*

I almost dropped my Kindle. In the opening pages of this book, this man had addressed the broader scope of education—that education is preparation for the world, not a degree on paper. Education is a transmitter of a culture that we can either force on our students or equip them to participate in themselves.

Too often, we try to fit all students into an archaic educational box. The fight is not to train students to succeed in a predetermined culture. The fight is to create an environment where each student is valued and can reach his or her potential. I’m thrilled that a book on poverty and education is capturing this belief.

Within ten minutes, my perspective on this book and my entire year had changed. I haven’t even finished the introduction, but Milner has already articulated the depth of topic he is addressing, the limitations of his book, and the complexity of the problem. I’m thrilled to be able to enter an intellectual community led by people who are eager to engage in the heart of education and how we can use it to better lives globally, and I plan to suspend judgment before I enter into any future conversation about race, poverty, and education.

*All quotes attributed to Richard H. Milner, Rac(e)ing to Class, Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press, 2015.

Creation Regained

Sometimes I forget why I want to do what I want to do in life. In short, I want to spend my life making education accessible to people globally. Why? Because everyone has a voice, and too often groups of people are marginalized because they don’t have access to education and so are not respected in the world, or because the education system has been created by people who don’t understand them and so doesn’t work out like it’s supposed to.  That’s not right. It’s not right that people don’t have a voice and so their needs are misunderstood or ignored.

I got really good at saying this and therefore knowing that’s what I wanted to do, but I admittedly forgot why I was saying this until this week. And it started in a politics class during my sophomore year of college, even though I didn’t know it at the time. I took the class somewhat unwillingly–politics scared me. I wanted to take sociology to fulfill my human sciences requirement, but the course either filled up, or didn’t work in my schedule, I don’t remember. I ended up in Perspectives on Political Order, and it scared me.

One of the textbooks for that class was Al Wolters’ Creation Regained. It was actually one of the few textbooks I didn’t purchase and just borrowed from a roommate (I wish I’d purchased it). You can read a summary of the book here. In short, the book discusses redemption through Christ not only for us, but also as an act of moving the world into right relationship with God. The world includes things like the physical world, but also social constructs and everything God has created. Wolters asserts that everything created by God was good and has been tainted by sin, and Christ’s redemption was not just for human salvation, but the salvation of the world (Dad, please don’t pick holes in my theology…I know it’s not perfect).

I don’t think I fully grasped the impact of the book until I started teaching in a low-income school district where the effects of racism still ran deep. As I grew frustrated with the fact that the system didn’t work for my students and how I as a teacher would be measured by inappropriate teaching standards, I grew indignant and angry. I wanted to be done.

One evening I was speaking with someone about teaching, and I brought up my faith background, then began to spew out how angry I was about how ridiculous the school system and testing requirements are and how my students were being treated unjustly and as a result it wasn’t fair.

“Lauren, what does your faith say you should do about that?” she asked.

I stopped. “I mean, it says I should do something about it,” I stammered, a little sheepishly. How could I say otherwise, when Christ has called us to bring justice to the world?

Suddenly, Wolters’ book made just a little bit more sense. An unequal education system is one of those things that has been corrupted by sin, and we have a responsibility to transform it in order to provide everyone with the quality of life they deserve as human beings. And I knew I couldn’t just turn my back on it. Having seen the impact that such inequality had on my students just wasn’t right.

That doesn’t mean I know exactly how to change the education system. But I want to learn, and help make it happen.

I’d forgotten this.

This past week I attended a lecture at my alma mater. I was walking back into the building afterward and ran into my professor from my politics course. I wasn’t really expecting him to remember me–I was one in about 30 students from a gen-ed class five years ago. But impressively, he did (kudos to my small Christian liberal arts college faculty!). A day later he’d sent me an article about Wolters’ Creation Regained. As I read through it, I remembered why I do what I do.

You should probably read Creation Regained–you just might find a new meaning for the work that you do.

Educating for Empathy

During my second year of teaching, one of my supervisors asked me what my vision was for my students. He asked it a lot more eloquently, and probably used some fancy words that I don’t remember.

I felt like I was supposed to say something like high test scores so they could get into a good college, or AP classes. But instead, I only remembered how meaningless all of those things had felt during my first year of teaching. Good grades really didn’t matter a whole lot if they meant the kid moving away from their family and not coming back to a town that needed them.

What I did remember was how fractured my classes felt, and how I couldn’t get my students to see that they were part of a community. I wanted them to walk away with a recognition of how their actions impacted others.

“What is that skill?” I was asked.

“Um, I’m not sure…” I stuttered. “I mean, empathy, I guess. If I want my students to understand how their actions impact others, then they need to be able to see things from another person’s perspective and understand how that person feels.”

I didn’t realize how important the concept of empathy would become in my life. Not that I’m very skilled at it—I’m not. In fact, I pretty much suck at it. If someone doesn’t respond the way I want them to, I tend to label them. It’s something I’m working on.

But if we ever want to see change in the world, we’re going to have to develop a sense of empathy.

Last month at FIGT’s Plenary Panel of Dudes, one of the questions that emerged was “Is there a decrease in empathy in the world?” One statistic reported that there has been a 40% decrease in empathy. I’m not really sure how you measure empathy, but that’s the statistic.

It’s impossible to deny the number of awful things that happen in the world. Whether its a genocide in Sudan or a shooting in South Carolina, bad things happen.

But it also makes me wonder, what if we all had a little bit more skill in understanding each other? What would that do to bridge worlds? How would that open conversations? How would the Cold War have happened differently, or WWII? Or the Crusades, for that matter?

I know this sounds easier than it is. It takes a lot of time to develop those skills, and it’s tough because, let’s face it, we’re human. We can’t read another person’s mind. It also takes exposure to other ideas. It also takes phenomenal people, and maybe political, skills.

But that’s why it’s so important to start it early, and in school. The more we expose kids to the skill of empathy, the more it becomes part of who they are. Instead of judging, we start to ask why a person sees something the way they do and evaluating the validity of that view and come to a common understanding.

So even though they have to learn math and science and history, let’s also teach them empathy.

Visible Learning

Earlier this month I read Doug Ota’s newly published book Safe Passage: How mobility affects people and what international schools should do about it (highly recommended for anyone working with frequently transitioning families).  I’ll publish a book review on it shortly.

One of the focal points of Ota’s book is a study by John Hattie entitled Visible Learning.  Hattie recently completed a study measuring the impact that various influencers have on student learning outcomes.  These influencers ranged from teaching techniques to teacher attributes to school structures to student home life.  I found the breakdown of each of these influencers to be fascinating (to see all of them, visit this website).

A couple of key take-aways that I got from this as an educator:

1. Most things have a positive effect on a student’s learning.  Out of the 137 influences listed, only 5 had a distinctly negative effect.  Some of these are controllable within a school setting (i.e. providing formative evaluation) and some of these are not (i.e. gender).  I don’t think it’s realistically possible for a teacher to be attentive to all 132 to the 137 factors that lead to positive learning, but as long as some of them are being addressed, then I feel like teachers can be confident that we’re going to decent job.

2. I found it interesting that most of the influences indicated as having the most positive impact on student learning were not necessarily teaching strategies, but rather larger processes that a teacher can incorporate into anything.  For example, self-reporting grades can be incorporated into any classroom (side note: I’ve always wondered about the impact of self-reported grades, because as a teacher I wondered how accurate a student would be…but I guess whether or not they are accurate doesn’t necessarily indicate how helpful they are in student learning).  Or something like comprehensive interventions for learning disabled–not something specific that a teacher does, but something that a whole school can get behind.

3. The five negative influences on student learning were fascinating: summer vacation, welfare policies, retention, television, and mobility.  I guess this could be solid evidence for eliminating summer vacation and moving to a year-round school system.  But then, maybe we should also eliminate TV and hope that student learning improves?

One thing that I appreciated about Doug Ota’s book, though, was that even though mobility was ranked at the bottom of the list in terms of negative influencers, he didn’t treat it as a crime.  Rather, Ota provided ways to help people who are constantly mobile continue to learn well.

Which I think should be a take away from this entire list–none of the items on this list are magic wands that will or will not increase student learning.  Instead, it’s how we respond to them and what we do with them that make a difference for students.

On Data and Stories

It’s been fascinating to hear stories of when people first discovered the term “TCK.”  For many people, it was liberating—to know that someone had put words to their story and that there were other people like them.

I can’t remember the first time I learned the term.  I don’t think that I can realistically say that I’ve always known it, but I can’t quite pinpoint an age.  I can say that it was frequently referred to by teachers at my school, and so I’ve had an awareness of it for most of my teenage life, if not earlier.

And to be honest, part of me resented that term as a child.

I didn’t resent it because it didn’t fit (it completely does!).  instead, I wondered how someone who didn’t know me could dare to predict how I would feel six months, one year, or even five years into my future.

I feared being put into a box.  But moreso, I feared that my story would be lost in a world of data.

Today as an educator, I see data everywhere.  As a classroom teacher, I compiled data on my students’ reading levels and test scores in order to strategize growth.  In my current organization, I consolidate data based on seminars we run.  On Twitter every morning, I see data points make their rounds through social networking (this morning it was, “The illiteracy rate of women in Lebanon is decreasing to attain less than 2% at the age 20”).

Data is great. It helps to tell a story. But my fear is that data becomes the story. When we focus on data, it’s easy to lose the people behind it. Unfortunately, it was something that I allowed to happen with my students. It was the same fear that I had when I was labeled as a TCK (don’t worry Mom and Dad, I don’t resent the fact that you raised me as a TCK).

But I’ve also come to realize that if we’re not careful, data can quickly become the reason for everything and can take the place of people. In education, it too often becomes the reason we educate—and it shouldn’t be that way. It can be a reason and a way to measure (and it should be!), but it should not be the only reason. We educate so that people can share and understand stories beyond data.

Bridging Worlds

Over the past couple of days at the Families in Global Transition Conference, it was inspirational to meet some amazing people who have stories similar to my own.  When I think about my life, I’m honored to realize that I’ve led a pretty cool life.  I was born in Taiwan and lived there for most of my childhood.  During those eighteen years, I traveled to the Philippines, Japan, and Thailand.  Then I received a quality education from a liberal arts college, during which time I connected with phenomenal people and lived in Italy for four months.  After that, I taught in rural North Carolina, where I met some powerful students and visionaries.  Now I get to travel to Haiti to work with teachers who have an amazing passion for their students.

Many times, rehashing my life for people results in glazed over looks and confusion.  But over the past weekend, that’s the last thing that’s happened.  Because everyone else has had a similar story.  Moreover, these people are trying to make a difference with their stories.  This weekend I met Tayo Rockson, a TCK who lived in five countries and founded Use Your Difference (http://www.uydmag.com) to encourage people to “Use their difference to make a difference.” I met Ellen Mahoney, who founded Sea Change Mentoring (http://seachangementoring.com) as a mentoring organization for TCKs in high schools and universities.  I met Ruth Van Reken and Michael Pollock, who have established and continued groundbreaking research into the impacts that global mobility has on children.

Talking to these people made me remember that I could be part of something bigger.  As mobile as we are, and however much we end up dispersing across the globe, we as TCKs have a unique opportunity to make a difference in the world due to our backgrounds and global upbringing.  The conduit for that difference may vary, and one is not necessarily better than others, but it happens.  This revelation isn’t new, but I was definitely reminded of it this weekend.

But honestly, we’re really not that special.  Pieces of our stories resonate with so many others.  How we acquired our stories may be unique, but the impacts that they have on us are similar.

And that’s where we get to start bridging worlds for others.

Because even though I’m a white female, I want to help the Haitian (or Taiwanese, or Romanian, or South African) student tell his or her story to the world through education.  Because if we’re not careful, these students are going to lose their cultural identity in the face of globalization in the same way that TCKs risk not developing their cultural identity because they never grow up in one culture.

And I firmly believe that one of the vehicles to do this is education.  Through education, we build empathy.  Through empathy, we build understanding.  And through understanding, we build the ability to listen to others, recognize, and celebrate their differences.

After the conference ended, I met up with one of my North Carolina friends for dinner in DC.  We had a few extra minutes and with them we visited a small, local bookstore.  As I was browsing through the books, my eye caught a children’s book that had the blue UNICEF brand emblazoned on its cover.  The letters read A life like mine.  I grabbed it and started flipping through it, slowly discovering that this book identified different themes of cultural identity and depicted how these indicators were manifested in different cultures across the world.  As I looked further throughout the store, I found an entire education shelf devoted to cultural response teaching and education as identity development.  Please feel free to check out their website: http://www.tfcbooks.org.

I realized that this is where I get to start bridging worlds.  Through my passion for education, and I get the help teachers give their students a voice that will further their cultural identity while still understanding others.