Fishbowl

Rationale

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.

Procedure

  1. Select a Topic
    Almost any topic is suitable for a Fishbowl discussion. 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.
  2. Set Up the Room
    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.
  3. Prepare for the Discussion
    Like many structured conversations, Fishbowl discussions are most effective when students have had a few minutes to prepare ideas and questions in advance.
  4. Discuss Norms and Rules

    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).

  5. Debrief
    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

  • A Fishbowl for Opposing Positions: 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.
  • A Fishbowl for Multiple Perspectives: 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.

Example

 

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