In a Fishbowl discussion, students seated inside the “fishbowl” actively participate in a discussion by asking questions and sharing their opinions, while students standing outside listen carefully to the ideas presented. Students take turns in these roles, so that they practice being both contributors and listeners in a group discussion. This strategy 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.
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).
Students identify what good, productive, and meaningful conversations look and sound like through an interactive modeling activity.