International Schools are constantly evolving to cater to the changing needs of international expat families. With greater globalization, the demand for international education has grown substantially, which has in turn led to an increase in families enrolling their children in international schools within their home countries as well as overseas.

I have worked in international education for the past 14 years. For the first 9 years, I worked in schools which catered primarily to local students. These schools offered families a western-style English education that led to international qualifications and the opportunity to attend university overseas. Schools like these are common in countries where there are no restrictions on who can attend an international school. While the schools often identify with one particular country, hire international teachers and teach an international curriculum, the culture of the school is often underpinned by the culture and/or religion of the host country. As a result, international schools which cater primarily to local students, often have a clear idea of their identity and the market they serve.

For the past five years, I have been the Lower School Principal at Hangzhou International School in China, which has more than 50 nationalities represented within our student body. It is fair to say that HIS is a microcosm of western culture within a Chinese cultural setting. Like many international schools in China, HIS has been growing steadily over the past 20 years. However, with additional growth in student numbers, there have also been changes to the cultural background of our community.

Changing Demographics

International schools in China are seeing an increase in Chinese heritage students, and a decrease in the European and North American students that used to make up the bulk of their population. In China, students who are legal residents of a country outside of China are eligible to attend international schools. With the number of Chinese middle-class families with disposable income growing, so too are the number of applications for Chinese heritage students (with overseas passports) to attend international schools. As a result, schools are experiencing a challenge in maintaining cultural and linguistic diversity within their communities.

While international schools are willing to adapt to the changing needs of their students and families, they are not willing to compromise their mission of offering an education to international learners. As I have continued to reflect on what constitutes an international learner, I have realized that citizenship, language and race are categories which are too simplistic to represent the cultural complexity that exists in our schools.

Common Issues of Cultural Identity

There is an increasing amount of studies and explorations in the topics of cultural identity: teaching and learning in multicultural classrooms, the relationship between language and culture, global transitions, ‘Third Culture Kids’, and culturally responsive teaching. All of these topics explore the impact of a culturally diverse educational environment on young people.

One recurrent theme in the literature about the issues of cultural identity in international schools, is the students’ experience of traversing multicultural landscapes and shifting perspectives and identities towards, or away from, particular cultural norms. It is a complex process that often leads to tension, especially within the family homes of students attending international schools in their home countries.

Many local parents, who choose a western-style education for their children in their home country, believe that by keeping their children close, they do not need to worry about them becoming too westernised. However, there is a growing body of data suggesting that these children encounter even more challenges in managing their cultural identities, than if they had travelled overseas for their education.

In some cases, family members can become upset when their child starts exhibiting behaviours and perspectives not in line with local culture. Communication breakdown in families can also be a problem, attributed at times to the lack of national pride felt by students, and the language differences between students and their parents.

With the rise in local students attending international schools at home, it is becoming increasingly important to recognise and address the issues relating to student cultural and individual identities from within international schools.

Preparing Teachers to be Culturally Responsive

Schools are considering how to address these challenges and are realising that it is important to prepare their teachers to understand and respond to issues that may exist in their classrooms. By establishing a pedagogy of cultural responsiveness, teachers will need to recognize the cultural categories that students may fit into, understand more about how students view themselves and know how student perceptions impact their sense of individual and collective identity.

Admissions departments have a large part to play in sourcing and sharing relevant information about a child’s cultural, linguistic and academic background so that teachers can begin to understand where these students come from and their level of comfort and familiarity with the norms and expectations of their new environment. From here, it is important for teachers to reflect on their own cultural biases and assumptions and try to avoid early labelling of student challenges as “cultural deficits”. Cultural responsiveness requires open-mindedness, patience and a true belief in inclusivity.

As schools continue to find ways to maintain their international identity within a changing demographic, it is important that they embrace the challenges of cultural identity faced by students in their schools.

Back to Featured Articles from the International Admissions Bulletin
Share This