Fishbowl Discussion Teaching Strategy | Facing History & Ourselves
Students sitting in a circle discussing
Teaching Strategy


Use the Fishbowl discussion strategy to help students practice being contributors and listeners in a group conversation.


At a Glance

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Teaching Strategy


English — US
Also available in:
French — FR


  • Advisory
  • Civics & Citizenship
  • English & Language Arts
  • History
  • Social Studies




What Is a Fishbowl Discussion?

Fishbowl is a strategy for facilitating group discussions. In a Fishbowl discussion, students inside the “fishbowl” actively discuss a topic. Students outside the fishbowl listen carefully to the conversation. They take turns in these roles to practice being both contributors and listeners in a group discussion.

A Fishbowl activity is especially useful when you want to make sure all students participate in a discussion, when you want to help students reflect on what a good discussion looks like, and when you need a structure for discussing controversial or difficult topics. A Fishbowl discussion makes for an excellent pre-writing activity, often unearthing questions or ideas that students can explore more deeply in an independent assignment.

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How to Run a Fishbowl Discussion

Almost any topic is suitable for a Fishbowl conversation. The most effective prompts (questions or texts) do not have one right answer or interpretation, but rather allow for multiple perspectives and opinions. The Fishbowl strategy is excellent for discussing dilemmas, for example.

A Fishbowl discussion requires a circle of chairs (“the fishbowl”) and enough room around the circle for the remaining students to observe what is happening in the “fishbowl.” Sometimes teachers place enough chairs for half of the students in the class to sit in the fishbowl, while other times teachers limit the chairs further. Typically, six to 12 chairs allows for a range of perspectives while still giving each student an opportunity to speak. The observing students often stand around the fishbowl.

Like many structured conversations, Fishbowl discussions are most effective when students have had a few minutes to prepare ideas and questions in advance.

There are many ways to structure a Fishbowl discussion. Sometimes teachers have half the class sit in the fishbowl for ten to 15 minutes before announcing “Switch,” at which point the listeners enter the fishbowl and the speakers become the audience. Another common Fishbowl discussion format is the “tap” system, where students on the outside of the fishbowl gently tap a student on the inside, indicating that they should switch roles. See the variations section below for more ideas about how to structure this activity.

Regardless of the particular rules you establish, make sure they are explained to students beforehand. You also want to provide instructions for the students in the audience. What should they be listening for? Should they be taking notes? Before beginning the Fishbowl activity, you may wish to review guidelines for having a respectful conversation. Sometimes teachers ask audience members to pay attention to how these norms are followed by recording specific aspects of the discussion process, such as the number of interruptions, examples of respectful or disrespectful language being used, or speaking times (who is speaking the most or the least).

After the discussion, you can ask students to reflect on how they think the discussion went and what they learned from it. Students can also evaluate their performance as listeners and as participants. They could also provide suggestions for how to improve the quality of discussion in the future. These reflections can be in writing, or they can be structured as a small- or large-group conversation.

Variations of the Fishbowl Strategy

This is a type of group discussion that can be utilized when there are two distinct positions or arguments. Each group has an opportunity to discuss the issue while the other group observes. The goal of this technique is for one group to gain insight about the other perspective by having this opportunity to listen and formulate questions. After both sides have shared and listened, students are often given the opportunity to discuss their questions and ideas with students who are representing the other side of the argument.

This format allows students to look at a question or a text from various perspectives. First, assign perspectives to groups of students. These perspectives could represent the viewpoints of different historical figures, characters in a novel, social categories (e.g., young, old, male, female, working-class laborer, industrialist, peasant, noble, soldier, priest), or political/philosophical points of view. Each group discusses the same question, event, or text, representing the assigned perspective. The goal of this technique is for students to consider how perspective shapes meaning-making. After all groups have shared, students can be given the opportunity to discuss their ideas and questions with peers from other groups.


Students engage in classroom discussion.

In fishbowl, there's an inner circle and an outer circle. So the inner circle are the few students who are brave enough to share out their thinking. The outer circle gives students who might be more leery, a little bit of time to think and process what is being said in the inner circle. And they have the opportunity to tap in to get their voice heard, and they tap in for somebody who has already shared so that we have that equity of voice in the classroom.

Any time that my students are engaging in fishbowl activity, they feel empowered. And so they know that I take a step back and that they take a step forward, but they know that I'm there for that facilitation and really it's a language acquisition process. There are many times in fishbowl and seminar that in preparing for that and analyzing the sources where students are trying to find their words and even within seminar trying to articulate themselves, and they have these ideas and they have these fresh perspectives, but what they don't necessarily have is the academic language and vocabulary that goes with it. And so I'm excited to hear their processes and to hear them struggle through understanding exceptionally difficult histories, but they do such a great job with it always. And so I'm excited to hear their fresh takes on it and apply a new level of precision of language to it as well.


- Start thinking about if you would like to start in the fishbowl. We're going to start with the first two set of questions. So if you want to go back up to those two questions to see if you are prepared to speak to something, we're going to have about five to six chairs in the center fishbowl and then the rest of us are going to be on the outside.

So take about a minute think about are you in a place where you're ready to share out? And remember with fishbowl you can tap someone out so you're not in there the whole time. If you are ready to talk in the middle, take your chair into the middle, otherwise take your clipboard any resources you need. Turn your chair into the center. Try to be as smooth as possible about it.

A lot of you were talking about great things. So starting with those first two questions. Daniel, right here. Can I get you to read them out loud again for us? And then anybody in the center can start.

- How does the majority opinion explain its ruling in the case which justification does the majority provide for maintaining segregation?

- One of the things that our group talked about was like even though you want there was equal rights within political terms or whatever, but there's not like equal rights within social life. And it's like you can't force one race to be the same as another.

- With the idea of equality, the majority rule didn't really fit with this idea of equality because it was only supporting them. And it wasn't really supporting like Plessy, et al. and that idea of power being taken advantage of.

- Johnny, nice job. Let's go.

- The first section of Justice Henry Brown delivered a majority opinion. It says, laws permitting and even requiring the separation. And I think that line relates to the second question of what justification does the majority provide for maintaining segregation. And it's saying that they're not really targeting the inferior race. It was clearly what's going on.

- It doesn't target a specific race, but then people still use that law anyways in order to target races. So I guess my question is, what is, I guess, the danger of being colorblind and not having specific laws?

- Well, if you're colorblind, you don't see color. You don't see my experiences either. So--

- Basically what you're saying is the Constitution is, I guess, in a way racist, I guess, and only includes a certain amount of, I guess, the white people, I guess. And it says what the court decided our Constitution is colorblind and neither nor tolerates classes among citizens.

- I don't necessarily think that the Constitution is racist, but I think it did set it up so that people could later influence it to be racist. They never really have specific laws in the original Constitution that dictate certain laws that differ based on race, but I did think it was important to look at based on when the original Constitution was actually written. It was written during the time where slavery was still a huge thing, and it was written during the time where the only people that could really make choices and have power were white men.

- All right. Really strong everyone. Thank you so much.


Facilitating that, it started to feel more just like a conversation, which is something that we're looking to help students acquire are those conversational skills in addition to the academic more literacy-rooted skills. Communication is obviously integral in that, but it's not always explicitly taught. Building those relationships is so essential in students. Trusting enough to be vulnerable in conversation that requires honesty, and it requires you almost doing something that feels uncomfortable in order to grow. And so if they don't have that foundation of trust, it becomes a lot more difficult to engage students.

Some students don't want to tap into the fishbowl because they don't feel that they are good enough or that their thought is articulate enough. So part of that rapport building is also necessary for that encouragement for the student that I can go to and say, hey, that idea I just went around the room nobody had it, but you did. And because they value their relationship with me and because they value their own voice ultimately, that encouragement helps them to engage.

In this classroom video, social studies teacher Jenna Forton uses the Fishbowl teaching strategy to structure a class discussion about primary documents related to the Plessy vs. Ferguson case.

Watch how Forton encourages each student to engage with speaking and listening roles, resulting in active participation, careful listening, and meaningful reflection.

Access the viewing guide and transcript for this video.

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