As long ago as the 1950s, the term “Third Culture Kids” (or TCKs) was being used to describe children and young adults who are raised or spend their formative years in a culture that is different from that of their parents or their own nationality. The term gained widespread use after the publication of David Pollock’s and Ruth Van Reken’s classic book “Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds”.
Given unabated globalisation over the past century or so, it is understandable that there has been extensive research into the impact of living abroad, both for adults and children. The evidence points overwhelmingly towards positive impacts for individuals who spend time living overseas – enhanced creativity, greater tolerance and understanding of others, reduced intergroup bias, career success, more self-concept clarity, and so on.
In some ways, this evidence is surprising. Many transitional experiences such as relationship breakups and job changes tend to lower confidence and self-concept, but the opposite seems to be the case with international moves despite the initial discomfort that many people experience. This suggests that living overseas is an unusual, and perhaps unique, transitional experience insofar as it tends to raise self-awareness, self-confidence and achievement.
This was tested in a 2018 study by Hajo Adam and four others published in the journal “Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes” (and later heavily summarised in “Harvard Business Review”). Their extensive study established that the growth measured in emotional intelligence, self-awareness and self-confidence is primarily driven by how long a person has lived abroad, not where.
While this research is of particular interest (and encouragement) to international schools, there are important lessons and implications for every school, and indeed for every school board. To understand this point we should first explore the benefits and challenges of spending time living abroad.
International mobility is thus a both a challenge and an opportunity that applies to all schools, not just international schools.
Schools that accept TCKs must be aware that in spite of any apparent self-confidence they may exhibit, children who are moving internationally are undertaking a major life-change that involves leaving behind friends, relationships and familiar surroundings. They are taking on a new life where almost everything may initially be alien, and the move will almost never have been their decision to make.
Such students may need special care and attention as they settle into their new surroundings. Of course, the effort will be worth it, both for the student and for the school. The school especially benefits because TCKs bring maturity, perspectives, experiences and histories which benefit not only their fellow students but also the teachers and any other adults in the school who are open to listening and learning.
Equally important is the question “how can the board benefit?”. There is a massive body of research establishing that boards benefit from having a diverse mix of members. The simple reason is that homogeneous thinking and decision-making almost never drives innovation. Having members with a variety of backgrounds and experiences will inevitably provide a rich mix of perspectives that will bring choices and new alternatives that are unlikely to have been tabled in a room with largely uniform board.
Historically, people have looked at diversity through moral, racial or political lenses. Tolerance, acceptance, and inclusivity have been widely seen as moral imperatives – ‘the right thing to do’. Indeed, diversity has emerged as a legal requirement in many school environments. Notwithstanding the moral imperative, I believe we should also consider the pragmatic benefits of diversity – how diverse ways of thinking and seeing problems lead to better outcomes in a practical sense.
Relating this specifically to school boards, we must acknowledge that the way we think in groups is different to the way we think as individuals. Collective wisdom exceeds the sum of its individual parts – that is the strength of boards. It follows from this that the more diverse the group, the more diverse the input will be, thus raising the efficacy of the group.
Interestingly, most people express a strong preference for working in groups of like-minded people. They also rate more diverse groups as being less effective (probably because the individuals are less likely to get their own way in a group with fewer other similar-thinking individuals). However, despite the greater discomfort felt by the participants, groups of people that comprise a mix of ages, genders, occupations, nationalities, religions, backgrounds and experiences are far more likely to find effective creative solutions to problems than less diverse groups.
The ideal for school boards is therefore to maximise mission effectiveness by actively seeking creative “diversity of thought”. It is important to understand that a contest of ideas and thinking styles within a homogeneous group does not represent diversity of thought. Indeed, working within a homogenous board is likely to create complacency about the lack of diverse representation.
True diversity of thought comes from diverse identities and experiences, along with an inclusive culture that emphasises openness, commitment, transparency, and accountability.
Research by John Quigley, for example, showed that every time the size of a city is doubled, the average IQ of that city increases by 4% and the average productivity of each worker rises by up to 27%. In his book “The Diversity Bonus”, Scott Page refers to this research, arguing that these changes occur because of the increased power generated by bouncing ideas off one another in a more diverse population.
Every so often, all school boards should ask themselves the Big Question: “How can we be more productive together?” I suggest that part of the should ensuring the board has members from different backgrounds and life experiences, including especially international and intercultural experiences.
By not actively seeking diverse composition, school boards miss one of the easiest and most potent opportunities to improve their effectiveness.
-Dr Stephen Codrington
Adam H, Obodaru O, Lu JG, Maddux W & Galinsky AD (2018a) The shortest path to oneself leads around the world: Living abroad increases self-concept clarity. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 145:16-29.
Adam H, Obodaru O, Lu JG, Maddux W & Galinsky AD (2018b) How living abroad helps you develop a clearer sense of self. Harvard Business Review: 2018-05-22.
Leblanc R (2016) The Handbook of Board Governance. Hoboken: Wiley (see pp.49-55).
Page SE (2017) The Diversity Bonus: How great teams pay off in the knowledge economy. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Pollock, DC & Van Reken, RE (2017) Third Culture Kids: The Experience of Growing Up Among Worlds, Boston: Nicholas Brealey Publishing.
Quigley JM (1998) Urban diversity and economic growth. Journal of Economic Perspectives, 12(2): 127-138.
Rhode DL & Packel AL (2014) Diversity on corporate boards: How much difference does difference make? Delaware Journal of Corporate Law, 39: 377-425.
Diversity and other facets of board composition, succession and dynamics are covered in our workshop OSG-S1 ‘Board Operations’.
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