In Education, Small Ponds Create Bigger Fish

There’s an old episode of The Simpsons where Lisa is skipped ahead to 3rd grade. After struggling academically and fighting with a recently demoted Bart, she is eventually presented with two options:

Principal Skinner: And Lisa, you have a choice. You may continue to be challenged in third grade, or return to second grade and be merely a big fish in a little pond.

Lisa: Big fish! Big fish!

Lisa’s decision reveals a lack of ambition, but research into what’s called the “big-fish-little-pond” effect suggests that she made the right choice for her academic future. The latest piece of evidence comes from a new study that examined nearly 400,000 students from 57 countries. Researchers found that when the average achievement of other kids in a student’s class rise, it has a negative effect on the student’s academic self-concept and career aspirations. In other words, the more a student feels like they’re one of the best, the better it is for their identity as a learner.

The challenge for an education system is to design the school day in such a way that every student can feel as though they are a “big fish” in some area. It’s tempting to say the solution is to have more art and music, but plenty of the students who aren’t good at reading or math will also struggle at art and music.

I think there is a good solution, but it’s one so simple nobody would ever consider it: Let students do whatever they want.

Google is famous for its 80/20 principle that allows employees to spend 20% of their time on a company-related project that interests them. A school in New Jersey recently got a lot of attention for making the same arrangement with its teachers. But why not let students do it as well? It doesn’t have to be a full 20% of the day, but if a school is allocating time for students to engage in activities designed to build creativity or generate interest in non-tested subjects, why not let the students choose what they do? The logistics are difficult, but by combining “free” time across grade levels and utilizing technology it should become more and more feasible.

There are plenty of “small ponds” out there that are relatively uninhabited. Giving students the chance to see that they’re one of the best at things like web design, computer science, chess, Latin, or astronomy will improve their academic self-concept and their future achievement.
Nagengast, B., & Marsh, H. (2012). Big Fish in Little Ponds Aspire More: Mediation and Cross-Cultural Generalizability of School-Average Ability Effects on Self-Concept and Career Aspirations in Science. Journal of Educational Psychology DOI: 10.1037/a0027697


3 Responses to In Education, Small Ponds Create Bigger Fish

  1. adavies660 says:

    Hasn’t the German education system being doing a similar thing for years? My friend found that having to resist his year 5 put him in the same situation, He went from bottom of the class, in achievement, to top of the class. Good concept? He felt it worked. I’m now doing my PhD , after being told by society, English education system, teachers and parents that I would never amount to anything, I was labelled stupid. it has taken me 40 years to realise they were wrong. Such a shame.

  2. erichorowitz says:

    I didn’t know that’s what they do in Germany — I’ll have to read up on that.

    Obviously it’s terrible to tell people they’re stupid, but it’s a tough situation because you also can’t just tell people they’re smart. Probably the best solution is some combination of allowing kids to discover they’re smart (in certain ways), and also teaching them that it’s possible to become “smart” even if they’re not.

  3. qliklearn says:

    At first i confused to read the title “In Education, Small Ponds Create Bigger Fish”. But in the article one can clear his confusing. After reading some post finally find a good one. Thanks……..

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