Monday, January 18, 2021

Big fish small pond OR small fish big pond?

 If you have to choose, would you rather be a small fish in a big pond or a big fish in a small pond? 

I ask this question because my students just had their O'lvl results. After so many years in this line, I tend to get less excited about their results. I fully understand how getting a great result will lead to undesirable consequences in life. I don't know whether to be happy about good results or be sad about bad results anymore. I'll explain more.

This student of mine, let's call him John, got a fantastic result of  L1R5 of 8 points. That is a freaking good showing in the O'lvl. It means almost all the subjects scored an A1 (the highest possible grade), except for 2 subjects which are A2 (the second highest possible grade). Fantastic right? So naturally, John will want to go to the best JC. But I know John since primary school; he's quite a nervous wreck and will often breakdown due to stress. As in, really breakdown, go nuts, need to visit psychiatrist kind of break down. If he goes to an elite JC, I'm worried about whether he will suffer another depression episode because we all know how crazily hard Singapore A'lvl JC course can be. 

So the question again: is it better for John to be a small fish in a big pond and go join a more neighbourly JC and be the top dog there? Or is it better for him to be a big fish in a small pond and go join that elite JC and possibly be crushed by the competition there and suffer any mental breakdown?

I tend to favour the small fish big pond idea, especially since I know John's 'pattern'. The education system is not worth shedding tears and blood, with the real cost of having a mental breakdown. I think the most important thing is to survive the education system with your confidence level intact. You do not want to come out of your schooling year thinking you are not capable of success. I've spoken to some NA/NT students and it's quite sad. After years of being hammered by the system, they have a tendency to think that their lot in life is only this high. They don't want to aim high because 'people like them' can only get this far.

In the past, I've seen a very clever and bubbly girl who got 250+ for PSLE, went to a top integrated programme school and got crushed alive. Does it happen to everyone? Of course not, but as parents, you really have to know the personality of your own children and most importantly, how they handle stress and adversity. Some will crumble and avoid stressful situation, while others will fight even harder. Choose carefully. Being in a top school does not guarantee anything with regards to grades. From what I've seen, most of the elite school assumed that the students have outside help (aka tuition) and so will go at breakneck speed.

For John, I've spoken to the mum about all these issues that worry me. She knows it too, so we'll be keeping tabs on him (if I'm still tutoring him, that is). I don't know which type of fish he'll choose to become, but I sincerely hope it'll be a salmon that swims against the current, jumps repeatedly over white waterfalls, in order to reach their destination. Because that is one fish, big or small, that is a real survivor. 


hyom said...

If my son got an unusually good O'level result than he deserves, I will advise him to go to the best school possible based on what I know about him.

- Why deny oneself the opportunity to study in brand-name schools if one has earned it through good results (never mind the luck)? Coming from branded school certainly helps in the future. No need to elaborate.
- Losing confidence in the face of stiff competition in a good school is a risk but this cannot be avoided when one goes out to work later anyway. It's either now or later. Might as well face it now.
If one were to suffer setback, the best time would be in school now rather than later in the work-place.
If one were to learn from painful experience, school would be the best place and time to do so.
- While it feels good to be a big fish in a small pond, I don't like the idea of basking in false confidence and have an unrealistic, inflated notion of own's ability. If a person is average or below average, it is better that he has a more accurate gauge of his own ability. So much of life's important decisions depend on knowing ownself well. So, better be self-aware of painful truths about ownself but got to at least try first before giving up.

Your student John is a different individual. If he is vulnerable to mental depression in the face of competition, then going to average JC may be better choice. However, given he is still so young as a student, has he tried enough first before he can really say he can't face the competition? Only John himself and to a lesser extent, the people around him like his mother and you know better.

la papillion said...

Hi hyom,

From what I know of John, he is an ambitious individual but has low self-confidence. Easily spooked and finds little things stressful, hence my advice. This kind of things have no right or wrong answers. I guess the impt thing is that no matter the road taken, he can take the setbacks well. You're right, life is only going to get worse in work life, but hopefully in delaying till then, he has the maturity and emotional depth to handle it better than during the teenage years.

It's interesting because today I met up with 5 other tutors. We touched briefly on this topic when we mentioned a student who got a score of 11 points for O'lvls (pretty good score) and the parents wanted him to enter JC. Usually, that student scores much worse than that. I think we unequivocally think that student shouldn't even try JC. Have we seen too many cases of students struggling to not believe in and hope that things will turn out well? I'm also not sure. It's just interesting to observe tutors thinking this way.


Derek said...

Hi LP,

There's a similar Chinese saying - 宁做鸡头,不当凤尾 (I’d rather be a chicken’s head than the tail of a phoenix).

I believed in making as much information known to the person as possible before making an informed decision. When my turn comes, I hope that I can put my personal biases aside and allow my son to make his own choice.

Unknown said...

Hi LP,

You really are a good teacher, and you go above and beyond for your students.
I see myself in John. I used to be a top scorer in my neighbourhood primary school, scoring a 251 in PSLE. I chose to appeal to a brand name school because it was near to my home instead of one that I was assigned to, which was equally good as well.
Turns out, even though I made friends and thrived alright, i never did as well as I did when I was in primary school. I survived better as a big fish in a small pond.
I wish John would choose a school that would be kinder to him and his development -- and you had a hand in that.

Unknown said...


Anonymous said...

I have known of many individuals who preferred to be a big fish in a small pond, and when they attempt the major national exams later, they fare better in such exams, scoring above average and 'beating' many small and bigger fishes in the big ponds. The thing abt being a big fish in a small pond creates self-confidence and self-esteem in a person. This quality is very important for one to succeed. My children and I have a phrase among ourselves : We'll find a way,...
I personally advise my children to choose which pond that they would like to be in, and for the one who chooses the small pond, I would advise her to look beyond her school and to visualise the competition out there. Being the best in her small pond school is NOT good enough,.... I keep reminding her of this. This has worked.
Anyway,.. as a parent I believe in one more thing : there is always a better world out there in this big planet whereby the competition is lower. Go there,... why struggle in a place where dogs need to eat dogs to survive ? Well,.... the small pond school and mentorship has earned him a place in The UNSW to do a difficult and competitive course. I believed scoring an ATAR of above 90 is quite good.


la papillion said...

Hi Derek,

You're right - all the information has to be laid out so that it's an informed choice. I think last time I anyhow choose but luckily it wasn't as bad (could have been better?). Still, being more experienced in life, parents must still limit the choices available to the children, unless the children are super-duper sure of what they are going to choose. Then it's their job to convince me that what they choose is going to be okay for them. Ultimately, they are the ones walking the path.

Btw, what's so bad about being a phoenix's tail? haha

la papillion said...

Hi Shuz(?),

haha, I think of myself more as a mentor to guide young ones in the most stressful periods of their schooling life... I have some students who long graduated but still asks me stuff about life (sometimes even investing!).

I like the way you put it: choosing a school that is kinder to him. It's exactly what it should be.

la papillion said...

Hi CK,

"I have known of many individuals who preferred to be a big fish in a small pond, and when they attempt the major national exams later, they fare better in such exams, scoring above average and 'beating' many small and bigger fishes in the big ponds. "

That's what I observed as well. The selection of the school is tricky. It has to be like Goldilocks selecting porridges from the bears - not too hot, and too cold. Preferably the school will offer just enough challenge to expand the horizon yet not so difficult that it discourages a student from even attempting. Once a student stops trying, that's it.

'We'll find a way." - I like that :)

Anonymous said...

Tq for replying, bro Papillon,... but well,.. my boy is going to attend a 'big fish' uni in Sydney soon,... we'll need to see if he can adjust this time. Honeymoon days are over,... Maybe you can check with me again how he is able to match-up against the other fishes later this year,...


la papillion said...

Hi CK,

From my ex students who went Aussie, a lot of them are the tops in school despite being average in local schools. I think our standards are pretty high compared to the ang mohs and local students are generally hardworking. Even those lower ranked students haha... Unless you meet those asian/PRC students in Aussie as well hahaha

Very best of luck for your big fish boy :)