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Whenever I’m reading, I tend to place a simple bookmark on each page worth noting — circling back (and perhaps illegally) taking a picture with my phone for safekeeping. However, in The End of the Rainbow by Dr. Susan Engel, it appears I’ll just have to download the eBook. Frankly, this work easily ranks near the top of education dialogue I’ve seen. Pages are brimming with research, personal accounts, real classroom experience, and a complete lack of filler. I stumbled upon this book from 2015 randomly in the library, and I’m hard pressed to understand why it’s marginally as popular as a work by Alfie Kohn or Tony Wagner.
Coincidentally, despite being fairly short (219 pages), I really can’t summarize every notion below. If you’re looking for evidence of progressive education, accounts of it in action, and a way to open up further reflection on your practice, you’ll need to check this one out.
The case-in-point of The End of the Rainbow is that our obsession with preparing students for jobs — whether those be innovative, “future-ready”, or otherwise — is doing more harm than good. Instead, we should primarily care about their well-being, about enlightenment of knowledge. Engel is a professor of developmental psychology, and mirrors her research with the impact it would have on the classroom. Quite obviously, when students are placed first and foremost as people — with care, nurturement, and sparks of curiosity — they’ll learn far more than presenting what they “should know” at them.
By allowing the pursuit of money to guide our educational practices, we have miseducated everyone. We are so hell-bent on teaching disadvantaged children skills (both academic ones, such as reading, and social ones, such as obeying rules) that will lead to a job that we fail to teach them the pleasure of being part of a literate community, how to make their work meaningful, or how to draw strength from the group — skills that might offer them a satisfying life. Just as bad is that middle-class and privileged children are pushed to view every stage of their schooling as a platform for some future accomplishment ending in wealth. This deprives them of the chance to figure out what they really care about, how to think about complex topics with open minds, and how to find a sense of purpose in life.
We’re consistently introduced to children, young adults, and post-graduates who fall ill to this system. They’re no longer learning as they did in elementary school — curious, playful, and engaged — rather they’re obsessed with the next step. While some schools focus on control, attempting to ensure that all students learn what’s “needed” on the test (being sure they graduate), others focus on test-prep due to the career opportunities college is deemed to provide. In both circumstances, there is little to no focus on the actual individual — on their pursuits, passions, and love of learning. Engel desires a shift to progressive practices that bolster student interest, which will lead them to understand more.
And this concept of learning to earning is dictated as a means to an end. It isn’t a cynical narrative of standardization ruining any sense of autonomy, but it was and is the easiest way to keep track of an expanding common system. However, as most are likely aware, the impact of “job readiness” education has dark implications. As Engel explains,
When you actually hear educations discuss the items on that list [collaboration, using technology, public speaking, thinking logically], money is lurking behind every phrase. ‘Students of the twenty-first century will need to be innovators to work in tomorrow’s industries.’..Even goals such as getting along with others are cast in terms of success on the job: ‘Look around. The people who get hired are the ones who can work on a team. These kids need to learn how to collaborate.’ In other words, all of our ideas about what children should be learning are hitched to a sense that a good education can be measured by financial success and that the peril of a bad education is poverty.
The bulk of The End of the Rainbow is dedicated to explaining how this obsession with financial success leads to poor outcomes for everyone. In one example, Engel explains how many inner-city “academies” take pride in their “engagement” — noting how a white educator commands mostly minority students to “sit up straight” and “stop looking around the room”, fostering a chilling, but academically-sound classroom according to most teacher training programs. In the upper echelons, she describes her college students’ obsession with money, fame, and power — they refuse to acknowledge that their learning is meant for making themselves happy for the sake of knowing it. Instead, their personal success is entirely dependent on the salary they receive after graduation.
Lost in this industrial output of children is the curiosity that guides our natural inclination to take in new information. Engel states,
…to ask students to spend years and years learning procedures and formulae for some distant goal (like a calculus course they might take in college) that may or may not have meaning to them is pointless. Most children cannot focus on such long-term abstract goals. Conjure up a typical thirteen-year-old, blemishes and all, consumed by various kinds of longing, dulled by the presence of rules and adults, transported by the energy of the group, desperate to feel totally engaged. Thirteen-year-olds who do not see college in their future will do it only in terms of one utilitarian goal — they learn math not to understand it but in order to do well on the test.
Again and again I see this in my own classroom and others. College preparation tarnishes the real learning that is necessary to fully understand the relevance of what college should be. Engel constantly demonstrates development psychology studies that presents this irony in education: by embracing progressive practices (e.g. removing grades, promoting PBL, and giving students much more choice), students will learn more than if we drill them with content. Bringing up classic studies such as Elliot Anderson in 1960, who found students were willing to perform semi-meaningless tasks more often when they weren’t paid, or Mark Lepper and Daniel Greene who found that students were more likely to illustrate when there was no reward for doing so. Case after case, learning that inspires more learning is supported by research.
In addition, this obsession with college-preparation and generating as much money as possible has negative effects on our psyche. Engel notes,
Despite the fact that students’ cultural and educational environment encouraged them to emphasize materialistic goals, the students who internalized those ideals the most suffered from the greatest amounts of distress and the lowest levels of well-being. These students were experience a kind of cognitive dissonance: what they were supposed to want did not match up with what they actually wanted. This led to self-doubt, low-self-esteem, and insecurity. When students are encouraged to seek money at the expense of other personal goals such as meaningful work or helping others, they rarely thrive.
This seems to devour our entire system of education — teachers included. In my experience, the teachers who are the most traditional — the strictest, the most test-oriented — are those who went into the profession with lofty goals but were hit by a grim reality that their worth is dependent on an end of year, irrelevant exam (which is likely one of the largest contributors to those leaving this profession early.) All that said, when our students grow up in this environment — one that not only measures their worth via a test score, but then assigns a monetary value to it — their view of reality becomes twisted and misinformed. It’s a damaging practice. This is especially the case as a child grows older:
It seems like that the closer graduation looms, the more the students, teachers, and parents get backed into a narrower and narrower set of goals. As children move through the school system, people tend to give up on the idea that school can teach the abilities that underlie a good life. Expectations of what school can offer become shallower and more concrete. The idea that school can provide a student with a love of books, the ability to think in new ways, and a sense of purpose are replaced with the hope that school can get them into college, teach them a marketable skill, or prepare them for an AP class.
What makes The End of the Rainbow different from every other progressive book out there is its accessibility and narrative. It’s not dense, but it’s supported by many pages of research; it has many anecdotal examples, as well as case studies. Also, it presents information in a way most educators will relate with: a brief history of standardization and industrialization, the issues with the intermixing of industry and schooling, and an action plan on how to shift away from it. Unlike most books in this genre, I didn’t find myself skipping large sections due to repetitious phrasing or “same old, same old” — instead, we’re constantly shown subheadings that break up major progressive ideas in an easy to understand way.
With the holiday season right around the corner, I recommend this book for any educator — or perhaps a coworker or your child’s teacher. This isn’t a critique as much as it is an inspiration for teachers looking to reignite their passion for the profession. It’s time we restore the purpose of education.