The Big Fish Little Pond Effect

Have you ever been a big fish in a little pond?  I had a student once who was an enormous fish in this teeny tiny pond of little musicians who all looked up to him as if he were Heaven-sent to play cello with them.  He was beloved in my program and really was a good cellist with great potential.  But his arrogance was a huge issue for him as he began to compete for chairs in All-State and eventual college acceptance as a cello performance major.  I remember thinking “Such a big fish may struggle in a sea of sharks once he gets to college” and I tried to prepare him for his new school mates (get it?! Schools of fish?!… Okay, back to my topic…) but he was certain that he would still be the best when he got to college.  This big fish lasted less than a year in the shark-infested waters of music performance before changing to a completely different major.  Sad, because he really did have potential, but couldn’t seem to get past being a big fish.

bflp2

Well, it turns out that research supports this very mindset.  As much as we think it is better for students to be surrounded by higher performing students, it may not be so good for their self-concept (Marsh, 1994) especially if they are not above the average of their surrounding peers.  Students who were above the average ability of their surroundings enjoyed not only positive boosts in academic self-concept, but also in actual student achievement.  Students who were below the average ability suffered with negative academic self-concept and in achievement (Marsh, 1994).  While this study was focused on academic self-concept, I do think this has important implications for musicians.

BFLP Chart

This is yet another reason for ability-level classes as opposed to grade-level classes.  Students need to be surrounded by others close to their own ability so that they can achieve success before moving into the higher classes.  I have actually experienced both situations in a high school setting and I can say with certainty that having students separated by ability and work ethic (EXTREMELY IMPORTANT!) instead of by grade is by far the best way to ensure student success and positive self-concept.

This year, I actually had a group of students in the most advanced group who were close to the ability level desired and seemed to show a great work ethic, so I allowed them to join the group.  This would turn out to be one of the biggest mistakes.  It all started at the beginning of the year when they were no longer the big fish in a little pond, but the little fish.  Instead of practicing and working their way into the new pond, they gradually gave up more and more until they began to actually pull the others down (I don’t think this was on purpose, but it definitely started to happen).  To make a 365-day story shorter, we ended the year with a divided class and it was one of the hardest years I have ever had mainly because of the tension within this group.  (NOTE TO SELF to write down this whole story for another day).

Although this effect is very real, I truly believe that the teacher can have act as a strong deterrent for these effects.  We create the climate of the classroom and we decide how we will handle the achievements, the downfalls, and the failures (we all have them!).  So here are a few suggestions for eliminating or at least easing the big-fish-little-pond Effect:

  1. Work toward ability-based classes so that students can experience successes regularly and can feel a sense of belonging within their class.
  2. If you can’t do this, then work toward finding the strengths for every single student (musical or non-musical).  Perhaps Joey isn’t the best violist, perhaps he’s kind of tone deaf and irregular with his pulse.  But maybe he is a really great listener.  When you have listening activities, call on him often, show him off!  Maybe Jaila isn’t so great on the cello, but she can fix just about anything.  Show off her successes for that!  Each student in your class must feel that they belong for one reason or another.  This can really take some time, and it doesn’t always work (my top group this past year), but in other groups, it has always worked for me!
  3. Avoid playing favorites!  Why do all the students have to know that Jackie practices more than them, is more in tune, and is just a better player than them.  Since when do we flout other students in front of one another?!
  4. Create student groups where they can feel successful.  Perhaps this means placing the most encouraging students with the struggling ones.  Perhaps they are grouped by ability so that the struggling students are not feeling embarrassed with the crazy advanced ones and the advanced ones aren’t feeling frustrated with the ones who struggle.

Now, all of that being said, I do think it is important that students interact with one another from time to time so that they are becoming humane, kind, and patient adults who understand the diversity within our society.  But we still want to provide students with the emotional and physical tools for success and I think knowing that this Big-Fish-Little-Pond Effect does exist can help us as educators to better prepare our students.

In closing, I will tell you that while my little big fish cellist did not complete a music degree, he is now a very successful med-school graduate.  I think he learned a great deal from being a new little fish and took his knowledge into another field where he did become successful.  Yay for happy endings!

Marsh, H. W. (1994). Using the National Longitudinal Study of 1988 to evaluate theoretical models of self-concept: The Self-Description Questionnaire. Journal of Educational Psychology,86(3), 439–456.

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