Big Fish, Little Pond (Part 1)

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Estimated reading time of 2 minutes

Here’s something for you to ponder on: would you rather your child attend an Elite school or a neighbourhood school?

The ‘Big Fish, Little Pond’ theory was coined by a famous psychologist, Herbert Marsh, where Marsh thinks that most parents and students choose their schools based on the wrong reasons. “A lot of people think that going to an academically selective school is going to be good,” he said. “That’s just not true. The reality is that it is going to be mixed.”

This theory was further explored by Malcolm Gladwell in his book, ‘David & Goliath’. In this book, Gladwell cited the example of a girl named Caroline Sacks. She was a brilliant student; scored distinctions and even perfect scores for the subjects she did in school. She was an avid science lover since a young child, where she would draw bugs on her sketch book and label different parts of the bugs. When Caroline was in high school, she was often fascinated by the human body and the way it works. After her junior year in high school, Caroline’s dad took her around to visit a few American universities so to prep up for her future university choice. Brown University became her first love and ideal choice of university, follow by the University of Maryland as her second choice. Upon high school graduation, she managed to enrol into Brown University to take on a Bachelor’s Degree in Science.

What happened next? Did she graduate with a Bachelor’s Degree in Science or did she drop out of the course to pursue another major?

Gladwell deduced that Caroline Sacks would probably be in the 99th percentile of students in the world majoring in Science. In the words of Caroline, “If I’d gone to the University of Maryland, I’d still be in Science.” So, what actually went wrong? Why is it that the majority of brilliant students who were accepted into Elite schools became unimpressive thereafter? Are the teachers and professors failing the students, or are the students failing themselves? The answer is none.

What Caroline Sacks faced is known as ‘relative deprivation,’ a term developed by a sociologist, Samuel Stouffer. Being in a university with the cream of the crop made Caroline felt unintelligent. The university system crashed her confidence, leaving her demoralised. In every class, there will bound to be a group of students who lie at the bottom of the academic ladder in terms of results. With high expectations from an Elite school, it puts that particular group of students in a difficult position to keep up with rest.

Caroline was placed in an extremely competitive environment as though a small fish in a big pond.

Having said that, we cannot rule out the benefits of being in a big pond such as the relationships built and connections made during the course of school as well as the possible opportunities available.

There are always a few outliers that I would like to point out; notable figures like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg who are university drop-outs yet have succeeded in their careers exceptionally.

Please stay tuned to part 2 next week.