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How to Get Students to Believe in Themselves

Cyprinus Auratus, The Gold-Fish., Digital ID 403929, New York Public LibraryHow many times do you hear students in your classroom or library say, “I can’t”? Doesn’t that phrase make you cringe? I always tell students, "Don’t say that because you can,” and help them figure out ways to reach their goals.

That’s one way to help, but sometimes a person is not always around to reinforce a positive way of thinking. After doing some reading, I came across “The Fish Story” (this story works with various age groups).

When the students walk in your classroom or programming room, greet them and hand them a small plastic snack bag with a few goldfish crackers inside.

"Cool, can we eat them?" at least one of them, if not all of them, will usually say.

"Not just yet," is your reply. Then begin the fish story.

This is a story about a fish. It's not an exaggerated "fish tale." It's a true story about a fish that was living in a large tank in New England. This fish was inside the tank because he was being studied by scientists. He was perfectly content. All his needs were being met. At feeding time the scientists would drop some minnows down into his tank. The fish would happily gobble them up. It was a good life.

One day the scientists changed their routine. Instead of dropping the minnows freely into the tank, they placed the small fish inside of a glass tube. The tube was designed so that water could flow freely through it. The large fish swimming in the tank could easily see the tiny fish inside the tube. As the big fish grew hungry he began to try to get to the small fish inside the tube. This was his meal! He pushed the tube against the side of his tank. Of course, the hungrier he became the harder he tried. He knocked that tube with his tail and then with his whole body. Harder and harder he swatted at that tube as his hunger became overwhelming. But eventually the fish learned that he could not get to the minnows, no matter how hard he tried he simply couldn't open the tube. So he gave up.

After watching the big fish for a while longer, the scientists changed their plan again. They pulled the tube full of small minnows up out of the tank and then dumped them freely right into the large tank alongside the big fish. The poor minnows! Can you imagine what happened next? (Pause to let them think about how fast the big fish would eat those minnows.) The large fish starved to death. (Disbelief fills the room.) With minnows swimming freely all around him, he starved to death.

Why? How could that possibly happen? The answer isn't obvious, but it is simple. He no longer believed he could eat the fish. Once he stopped believing he could eat the fish, he no longer tried.

When you tell this story to students, at first they accuse you of making it up. But it is a true story. Then one of them will talk about how incredibly stupid that fish was. No human would be so silly, they say. But we are. We are just like that big fish that starved to death. In fact I think that fish is a perfect analogy for life. And I can prove it. “Now," I say to my students, "eat the fish." Usually they just stare at me. They have become so engrossed in the story of the fish that starved to death that they will have forgotten about the goldfish crackers you gave them when they walked into the room. They already have become just like the big fish.

"Eat the fish!" you will have to repeat. Slowly they begin to eat.

As they eat you say, "Any time you put limitations on yourself, needless limitations, which keep you from reaching your goal, remember — those limits are all inside your head. I want you to remember that fish — the one who starved to death with minnows swimming all around him. I want you to remember him and not make the same mistake. You have possibilities all around you! Eat the fish!"

It's a symbolic way of reminding students that they have to reject pointless limitations. They have to be diligent about rejecting the negative messages that surround them every day. You want them to remember that they are in charge of their own destiny. Maybe making them eat the fish is a little silly, but it is also memorable. Many students will not forget this activity or the important message it illustrates. Refer to it many times throughout the rest of the year. If someone is voicing self-doubt, another student may say, "What are you saying? Eat the fish!"

The fish story is a way to illustrate to students in a very concrete way that beyond the facts and despite the reality that others may doubt their dreams, there still are many wonderful opportunities "swimming" all around them. They still always have the power to create their own future. All they have to do is eat the fish.

This wonderful story and activity came from Dauna Easley, in Techniques (May 1, 2004).  Access via Academic Search Premier.


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Great Story!

I am going to use this story on everyone I come across that says they can't do something. I am sure I will get the same reaction to it as well. It does sound a bit far fetched but that isn't the point. <table id="TB_load"><tr><td>casino en ligne ~ Nous pouvons jouer aussi souvent que nous le voulons dans un <a href="">casino en ligne</a> si nous vivons loin de casinos ou bien si nous voulons simplement jouer de la maison.</td></tr></table>

Great story. But I can't

Great story. But I can't present it as literally true if I suspect its just a humdinger of a motivational fairy tale. Where's the citation for the fish experiment?


This is a great concept but the actual experiment would be really helpful. Please post it!


I think they were able to say this is a true story because it might be based off the Martin Seligman learned helplessness dog experiment. Google it

This expirament does not

This expirament does not exist. Fish do not have the intellectual capacity first of all, to problem solve like described toward the beginning of this story. Nor, would they have the memory, or mental processes to apply possible outcomes to situations. This whole mess implies that fish have the cognitive ability to 'learn'. Rediculous.

Um, fish can learn. Haven't

Um, fish can learn. Haven't you seen the Mythbusters episode where they train the goldfish? I hate when humans think we're the only species on the planet with usable brains.

This just sounds like a copy

This just sounds like a copy of learned helplessness, seligman has experimented and written about it. Good story tho.

Having been a teenager

Having been a teenager myself, I would forget about the Fish story in about 5 minutes, and eat the goldfish the second they said I could. School food sucks, Goldfish are delicious snacks, and a story about a stupid fish is not very interesting to the teenage mind when we're busy thinking about girls/guys, or grades, or friends, or even pointless drama that teenagers generally have.

Buddy.... eat the fish.

I already have lots, but I'll use every itsy bitsy tool I can to help me motivate my kids. I'll eat this fish.

Please think...

Your experience doesn't apply to every teenager. Doubtlessly some people will find this story interesting enough to hold onto. The fish study can be found here: You all have google and a brain...

Good story, but it still

Good story, but it still shows that sometimes the minnows are inside tubes which are impossible to get out. What if the dilemma in life is literally something we cannot do (as in, the minnows are still in the tube), and it's not just our thoughts that are limiting us (as in, starving to death while the minnows swim freely)? Yes, the fish's own thoughts limited him to eat the minnows as they swam freely, but he first had to get to that state of mind from knowing that something was literally impossible to achieve. Are there still things that are literally impossible to us, to drive us to the point of starving to death? Yes, when minnows swim freely, we must let go of the one thing that set us back and begin eating the fish, but what if we are in the midst of that one thing, that one thing that will destroy our confidence for the future, the thing that is literally impossible to achieve? Can you motivate a fish to break the tubes to eat the minnows?

The point of the story isn't

The point of the story isn't that nothing is impossible, It's that you shouldn't give up before you've tried, or assume something is impossible because of preconcieved notions like the fish.
This sort of thing is what contradicts my favorite Genius' (Einstein)supposed saying that is is foolish to do the same thing over and over expecting a different result. Unless EVERY circumstance was always identical I don't see why results couldn't vary even if YOU stubbornly repeated yourself.


This experiment was done on a pike. Also, the pike was being fed during the experiment; the other fish were not its only source of food. It probably was tired of the pain it experiences running headlong into the glass partition. Pain is a great training device. Well, also, perhaps it suffered brain damage from repeated concussions from ramming into the partition. I think it's a little dramatic to state that the fish died while there was food nearby. Also, there will be some students who will not engage in the \"spirit\" of the story. I don't like gimmicks like this. What the story says is that you try or you die. Hmm.

Good story, needs revising

This is a good story for helping people break out of their patterned mental structures (which is admittedly pretty hard to do.) I don't know how many times I've seen people say they "can't" do something because they are afraid of breaking some rule in their mind. In the end they function inefficiently and poorly because they are working so hard to avoid breaking this imaginary rule. Since this story doesn't have a citation that I could find, it could be reworked into more of an Aesop's Fables-variety tale. You could even give the fish dialogue. It would be just as entertaining (if not more so) and still get the point across.

Learned Helplessness Effect

I can't attest to the truth of the story, but I can say that this idea is backed by research. Seligman's study on "Learned Helplessness" found similar results in dogs.

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