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date: 15 October 2019

Transnationalism and Education

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Education. Please check back later for the full article.

Transnationalism describes the ways in which ties between two or more nations are maintained; these maintenance ties abound in countless social practices that are, at times, situated within rigid governing structures. Transnationalism not only implies physical movement across borders, commonly referred to as “immigration,” but also emotional ties across borders. It also includes distinct ways of knowing that are informed by social media, loved ones, and cultural practices that span borders, including in education.

The transnational social spaces in which youth are raised are often filled with deep understandings of geopolitical contexts that weave together multiple national perspectives, personal navigation of physical borders (both with and without authorized documentation), and complex social networks in more than one country sustained through ever-changing media applications. However, these knowledges often remain unengaged in and under-acknowledged by schools.

Globalization has increased the practices of transnationalism and is a process often dominated by people with vested power interests who overtake the voices and interests of the masses most affected by shifts in power. Anti-immigrant sentiment and isolationism are fairly recent shifts in power that have swayed the impacts of globalization. Transnational practices are not so much limited but rather impacted as to where they shift people’s imaginations about what is possible. For instance, transnationals may consider moving to additional countries and returning to original sending countries in ways they may not have previously considered, all the while maintaining increasingly dense networks that cross multiple national borders.

The disciplines of sociology and anthropology have informed much of the research on transnationalism, though from different standpoints. Sociology has taken a more literal sense of transnationalism, focusing narrowly on physical bodies’ movements back-and-forth over borders. Anthropologists have more robustly engaged the emotional and psychological aspects of transnationalism as it impacts the groups generally described as “immigrants.” Unfortunately, most of the research related to transnational children and education has been under the larger framework of assimilation. The lamentable result is that the focus on how immigrants assimilate misses the opportunity to interpret (and perhaps misinterprets) a larger set of accompanying phenomena alongside the immigration act itself.

For education, transnational experiences can help students develop a sense of identity, which helps them achieve in the school settings of both receiving and sending countries, should they have to return. Similarly, transnationalism complicates and makes notions of citizenship more robust. Immigrant students are always potentially engaged transnationals during their settlement processes—the possibility always exists that they will remain actively connected to their home countries and even potentially return for visits or permanently. Educational research has more recently examined how transnationalism helps create and can deepen literacy practices, especially digital literacies.

Numerous education scholars have called for educators to draw upon students’ transnational lives in the curriculum. This can help to prepare all students for an increasingly globalized world. This does not suggest a “learning styles” approach where transnational students are considered a monolithic group in need of a repertoire of instructional strategies to meet the group’s needs. Instead, educators need to create the space where students’ transnational experiences and perceptions are allowed to be aired, understood, and built upon in schools. In education, the commonly stated goal is for the classroom to function as a “community of learners.” If, in fact, educators aspire to build true communities, transnational students’ lives should no longer remain hidden from the view of their peers and teachers.