I’ve just read one of the most interesting things I’ve seen in awhile — a guest column on CNN by professor Sheena Iyengar titled The Michigan Fish Test And The Middle East.

In it, she describes an apparently famous experiment of showing a picture of three large fish in a sea scene. When people from the United States were later asked to describe it, they focused on the large fish. When Japanese participants were asked to describe the same picture, they gave a much more holistic description of the picture. Ms. Iyengar states that it demonstrates the difference between the typical American individualistic approach versus the more collectivist one found in Asian cultures. She writes:

The divergent accounts point to differing narratives of what controls what in the world, and how individual people fit into it.

Her column got me thinking about how this same difference might apply to present school reform efforts.

Many school reformers continue to have a laser-like focus on the role of teachers, often dismissing any consideration of outside factors like poverty as just “excuses.” This despite abundant research showing that teachers have control of only one-third of the factors that affect student achievement. These reformers apparently see teachers as the “big fish” who are omniscient in their power — in the classroom.

At the same time, however, many of these same reformers seem to think that they themselves are the “big fish” when it comes to making any major decisions about what occurs in the schools. This kind of cult of personality has most recently been exhibited by Michelle Rhee’s announcement of her new StudentsFirst organization, which she announced in a Newsweek article filled with too many “I’s” to count. It seems that they often believe that only they have the needed wisdom and only they have the true interests of students in mind. They do not appear to see that power is not a finite pie — if teachers and parents get some, that does not mean they they will have less. In fact, more possibilities and opportunities are created as a result of that partnership.

School reformers might be wise to keep in mind Professor Iyengar’s description of this more collectivist model:

The individual isn’t powerless in these conceptions, but he or she is just one player in a larger drama of life, not its center.

The words humble and humility come from the Latin root humus, which means the soil or earth.  I’d like to suggest that a dose of humility could help many school reformers get a little more “grounded” in what is really happening in our schools, and what really needs to happen.

Looking beyond the “big fish” would be a start…