Pearce (2013) argues that the defining characteristic of international schools is their diverse student body (p. 61), highlighting how difficult it is to create a unified 'profile' to describe 'who' the typical international school student is. Hayden (2012) outlines some of the different types of students and schools that can be classified as 'international'; such as national schools with multicultural student bodies resulting from mobility and permanent immigration, temporary immigrants engaged in international tertiary studies, locals studying in international satellite campuses and offshore schools, and children of internationally mobile parents (pg. 59-60). One of the challenges that emerges is the difficulty that international school students have in forming identity in situations where the child and environment are of different cultures (Pearce, 2013, pg. 62). In addition, students of mobile parents may face language acquisition issues depending on the instruction of the schools they attend and their unique language needs (Pearce, 2016, pg. 185).
International school students face challenges forming identity while dealing with cultural dissonance they experience in their studies due to potentially different conventions regarding roles and communication (Pearce, 2013, pg. 62). Most teachers at international schools are nationally educated, often in the United States or the United Kingdom, cultures that may not easily view other cultures as equals (pg. 64-66). In addition, the multicultural upbringing of some international school students can result in the development of normative objectivity (pg. 74), which may result in conflict developing in the classroom due to different value placed on adherence to rules and norms. International teachers as a group tend to be risk takers or committed to internationalism as a group (pg. 63), and this self-selected approach might also lead to conflict with students from cultures that prize other values.
Other challenges can result specifically for Third Culture Kids (TCK), the transient children of internationally mobile parents, who report little connection to any home culture due to frequent migration to new countries and schools (Hayden, 2012, pg. 65). Though these students often move on to tertiary education and ultimately benefit from the language and cultural skills they gain in their migrations, these cross-cultural skills are often learned in response to suffering 'cross-cultural shocks' in youth (pg. 69). Their transiency results in many reporting their concept of 'home' as being bound less to place and more to relationships with loved ones (pg. 68). That said, their ability to form close bonds and relationships may be hampered by unresolved grief due to breaking of relationships due to their mobile existence (pg. 69). Hayden (2012) quotes McKillop Ostrom as stating:
"They tend to mesh and mimic, which cuts down the need to gain acceptance. They travel lightly, entering relationships that are typically short-term and intense, and they develop ease in saying goodbye, leaving very from people from whom they cannot walk away."
Another group of students encountered more and more in international education contexts are host country nationals who have chosen to study in international schools rather than the national educational system. While these students are frequently privileged or children of local elites, this may not always be the case (Hayden, 2012, pg. 65-66). Depending on their socio-economic reality, they may feel privileged among their peers in international schools or out of place due to their local culture and upbringing (pg. 66). Nationals studying in schools with curricula based upon foreign national systems and serving mostly expat student bodies run the risk of rejecting their local traditions and trying to take on the affectations and beliefs of their British or North American schoolmates (pg. 71).
Language issues may arise for both transient TCKs and nationals depending upon the language of instruction of the institutions in which they find themselves studying. The required multiple years of study, up to 7 years, to learn a new academic language, is made difficult to achieve by the frequency with which many international school students move (Pearce, 2016, pg. 185). This can limit their ability to benefit from their studies in general and may hinder their cognition in general (p. 185).
The diversity of student experiences in international schools requires a differentiated approach to meeting student needs that sets aside traditional reliance on cultural typology and approaches student need on a case-by-case basis (Pearce, 2016, pg. 188). Different groups of students will have different needs and experience different dissonances based on their unique situations: The child of two British parents studying in a British international school in their second year abroad will have different needs and experiences than the child of a Chinese father and Dutch mother who is in their final year of secondary studies after a transient life spent abroad who studies at the same insitution (Hayden, 2012, pg. 68). As such, the concept of differentiation is of great value to meeting student needs in international schools and international education contexts in order to minimize the cultural dissonance they face, especially with regard to values education (Pearce, 2013, pg. 65). Individual student observations can help to discover which students have come from groups that are 'good movers' and tolerate change reasonably well (pg. 188), and which students need specific support emotionally or through mother tongue programs to meet language needs (Pearce, 2013, pg. 74).
The stereotype of the wealthy, privileged international school student is one that is perpetuated by the globalist drivers of the expansion of international education and schools worldwide. However, in addition to the fact that the economic spectrum of students enrolled in such institutions is expanding to include and increasingly mobile middle class and local 'aspiring indigenous' learners (Hayden, 2012, pg. 63-64), it is also important to note that despite the economic advantages that many international students enjoy, they also face unique challenges. There may be a tendency to minimize these challenges and the negative effects that international students might suffer due to their privilege. To do so is unfair. Much as the child born into poverty has not had control over their starting conditions in life and shouldn't be judged for having been born poor, so too is the child born wealthy blameless in their privilege. As children of the world and students in our classrooms, they deserve to be cared for and treated as unique and valuable individuals deserving of care and understanding from the teachers and administratiors who serve them.
Hayden, M. (2012). Third culture kids: The global nomads of transnational spaces of learning. In Bunnell, T., Hayden, M., & Thompson, J. (eds.), SAGE Library of Educational Thought and Practice - International Education, Vol. 3. London, UK: Sage Publications Ltd.
Pearce, R. (ed.) (2013). Student diversity: The core challenge of international schools. International education and schools: Moving beyond the first 40 years. London, UK: Bloomsbury Academic. 61-84.
Pearce, R. (2016). Culture and identity: A method for exploring individuals within groups. In Hayden, M., Levy, J., & Thompson, J. J. (eds.), The Sage handbook of research in international education. London, UK: Sage Publications Ltd. 185-199.
Matthew Boomhower is a mid-career educator with 15 years of classroom teaching and educational leadership experience. He is Head of Innovation & Learning at an international school in Malaysia and is a proud husband and father.