How to Implement the Fishbowl Teaching Strategy in Your Classroom
In a “fishbowl” discussion, learners seated inside the fishbowl actively participate in a conversation by asking questions and sharing their opinions, while learners standing outside the fishbowl listen carefully to the ideas provided. Learners take turns in these roles so that they practice being both contributors and active listeners in a group discussion. This method is especially useful when you want to make sure all learners participate in a debate, when you want to help learners reflect on what a good conversation looks like, and when you need a structure for discussing controversial or difficult topics. A fishbowl discussion makes for an unusual pre-writing activity, often unearthing questions or ideas that learners can explore more deeply in an independent assignment.
- Select a Topic: Any topic is appropriate for a fishbowl discussion. The most effective prompts do not have one right answer or interpretation, but rather allow for multiple perspectives and opinions. The fishbowl method is excellent for discussing dilemmas, for instance.
- Set Up the Room: A fishbowl conversation requires a circle of chairs and enough room around the ring for the remaining learners to observe what is happening in the fishbowl. Sometimes, instructors place enough chairs for half of the learners in the class to sit in the fishbowl, while other times, instructors further limit the chairs. Typically, 6 to 12 chairs allow for a range of perspectives while still allowing each learner to speak.
- Prepare for the Discussion: Like many formatted conversations, fishbowl discussions are most effective when learners have had several minutes to create ideas and questions beforehand.
- Discuss Norms and Rules: There are a lot of ways to format a fishbowl conversation. Sometimes, instructors have half the class sit in the fishbowl for 10 to 15 minutes before announcing “Switch,” at which point the active listeners enter the fishbowl, and the speakers become the audience. Another standard fishbowl discussion format is the “tap” system, where learners on the outside of the fishbowl gently tap a learner on the inside, indicating that they must switch roles. See the “Modifications” section below for more ideas about how to format this learning activity. Regardless of the rules you establish, make sure they are described to learners beforehand. Provide instructions for the learners in the audience. Before starting the fishbowl learning activity, you may wish to review guidelines for having a respectful conversation. Sometimes, instructors 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.
- Debrief: After the discussion, you can ask learners to reflect on how they think the conversation went and what they learned from it. Learners can also assess their performance as active listeners and as performers. They could also give suggestions on how to improve the quality of discussion in the future.
- Opposing Positions: This is a kind of group discussion that can be utilized when there are two different 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 into different perspectives by having this opportunity to listen and formulate questions. After both sides have shared and listened, learners are often given a chance to discuss their questions and ideas with learners who are embodying the other side of the debate.
- Multiple Perspectives: This format allows learners to look at a question or the content from various perspectives. First, assign perspectives to groups of learners. These perspectives could embody the viewpoints of different historical figures, characters in a novel, social categories, or philosophical points of view. Every group discusses the same question or content, embodying the assigned perspective. The goal of this technique is for learners to consider how perspective shapes meaning-making. After all groups have shared, learners can be allowed to discuss their ideas and questions with peers from other groups.