As a teacher or a tutor, we do not doubt that you understand the value of active, learner-centered teaching strategies that help engage all the students in a meaningful activity.
While there are many different strategies, like think-pair-share, jigsaw discussion groups, or reflective reading responses, today, we’re going to show you how to organize fishbowl discussions for your students.
Fishbowl discussion is one of the most popular methods because it can be adapted to any grade-level and any educational topic or question. It creates an intimate and friendly atmosphere in which students feel comfortable sharing their opinions and are encouraged to do so.
Keep reading to find out what exactly is a fishbowl discussion, as well as, why, when, and how to organize a fishbowl discussion. What’s more, at the end of this article, we made sure to include practical examples of reflective questions and sentence frames you can easily implement in your next group-discussion.
What Is a Fishbowl Discussion?
Fishbowl discussion is a method for organizing medium to large classroom discussions. It’s a very distinctive approach that requires students to be seated in two circles – an inner and an outer circle.
The inner circle is made of four to five students who actively participate in the discussion. They are instructed to debate on a previously given topic or open-questions, while a facilitator (usually the teacher) makes sure every student gets a chance to speak their mind.
Depending on the size of the group, the inner circle can consist of two, three, four, or five students. Everything above that might prove to be ineffective, as the students won’t have time nor space to express their ideas.
The outer circle consists of all the other students in the classroom. Only the students in the inner circle talk, while the students from the outer circle are instructed to listen and take notes actively.
Usually, one session lasts 15-20 minutes, after which the students rotate, so everyone gets a chance to discuss the topic.
Why Organize Fishbowl Discussions?
The fishbowl discussion method has many strengths and is considered to be one of the most successful strategies for teaching students:
- to have thoughtful conversations,
- appreciate other students’ ideas,
- ask insightful questions,
- identify the key elements to effective verbal communication.
Through a fishbowl discussion, students work on developing high verbal communication skills. They’ll learn to concentrate on the speaker and actively listen, avoid distractions, be objective, support their arguments, and think of the next question – all aspects of advanced verbal communication skills.
In addition, students will learn to comprehend complex topics and ideas. While rotating, all of the students have the opportunity to share their understanding of the subject. This will help others to understand the essence of the topic better, maybe even see something they’ve missed or misunderstood. Basically, they learn how to think about and analyze new concepts.
Overall, the fishbowl method builds an inclusive and supportive learning environment. Instead of being called out to speak their mind in front of the whole classroom, through the fishbowl method, students engage in discussions with their classmates just like they would outside of the classroom.
Finally, as a teacher or a tutor, you’ll get the opportunity to assess the students’ speaking and listening skills in a relaxed environment for them. Whenever a student asks an insightful question or supports their idea with prior knowledge, they get a point.
Further in the text, we’ll break down how to grade fishbowl discussions.
When to Organize a Fishbowl Discussion?
The great thing about the fishbowl method is that you can implement it anytime throughout the year. However, there are three ways of organizing fishbowl discussions in order to maximize its educational benefits and support the topics in the curriculum.
Fishbowl as a Post-reading Activity
Throughout the year, students work on many literature pieces, like poems, novels, or short stories. A great way to ensure all of the students have read the piece and understand all of the literary elements you’ve introduced is to organize a fishbowl discussion with specific questions as a guide.
Fishbowl as a Pre-writing Activity
Writing assignments can be particularly challenging for some students. Instead of asking students to research the topics at home or prepare individually, you can organize a fishbowl discussion where your students will discuss the main points and the positive and negative aspects of your chosen topic. This can serve as an inspiration and as a creative stimulus.
Fishbowl as an End-of-the-Unit Review Activity
Before giving students quizzes or final exams, organize a fishbowl discussion to make sure everyone has understood the unit to a point where they can discuss it in detail and explain the main points in a simple and clear way. This can also help students that might have been struggling with the unit.
How to Organize a Fishbowl Discussion?
To organize a successful fishbowl discussion, follow these simple steps.
- Pick a Topic
You can organize a fishbowl discussion after a reading assignment, as a review activity for a subject unit, as a preparation activity for a writing assignment, or independently, for analyzing complex theories and ideas.
If the topic for the fishbowl discussion is independent reading material, then make sure to introduce the topic before the class and give students time to prepare.
- Set Up the Room
Before starting the fishbowl discussion, set up the room by rearranging the chairs.
- Make the first circle by positioning three to five chairs for the students who will be taking an active part in a discussion session.
- Leave enough room around and position the remaining chairs as an outer circle where the rest of the classmates will listen and take notes.
- Observing students can also stand in a circle around the inner circle, but this might not be comfortable for taking notes.
- Select Students for the Circles
Even though all the students in the classroom should get the chance to discuss as you rotate the inner circle after 15-20 minutes, the most effective way to ensure a high-quality discussion is to pick the students considering their past academic performance as well as personality.
Create mixed groups of high-achievers, talkative students, shy students, and students that struggle with the material. This way, talkative students will have to learn to listen actively and be more patient with the shy ones, while struggling students will be encouraged to express their opinion and work on their arguments.
- Lay Out the Ground Rules
Once everything is ready, make sure that students know and remember the fishbowl discussion rules.
The basic rule is that only the students in the inner circle speak, while others must be quiet and take notes. You should also tell the students how much time they have for discussion and what they need to go over in that time frame. Explain how the group will rotate once the session is finished, and who will be next. Last, but not least, lay out the ground rules of mutual respect and tolerance while debating.
Finally, tell students that they should be relaxed and feel comfortable. Assign a facilitator that will make sure that everyone follows the fishbowl discussion rules and there’s no disrespect. Most of the time, the teachers themselves are the facilitators, especially in the beginning.
Regardless of which rules you decide students must follow, ensure that you clearly explain them beforehand. Otherwise, you’ll lose valuable time by stopping the discussion and correcting the students. Plus, the flow of the conversation can be easily interrupted, and students can struggle to get back to their thoughts.
- Give Text-dependent Questions
To make sure the discussion follows a certain structure and all of the major points are covered, provide students with open, text-dependent questions on which they can give their opinions, and share prior knowledge and their personal point of view.
The questions should be complex enough to allow the incorporation of different ideas and theories. But, most importantly, they should never be based on right and wrong answers. Instead of factual knowledge, fishbowl discussions explore students’ way of thinking, their acquired speaking and analytical skills, and the ability to effectively communicate their opinions with their peers.
- Divide Students into Small Groups and Reflect
Once the fishbowl discussion is finished, divide students into small groups and provide them with a list of reflective questions they should discuss or write for. The main idea is to get feedback, so you can improve the next discussions, as well as see exactly how this activity helped students develop new skills and learn more about the subject matter.
Sentence Frames to Help Students Prepare for the Fishbowl Discussion
While giving instructions, it’s a good idea to give students examples of how they can structure their sentences in order to be respectful and clear. This is especially important in the beginning when they first learn to argue on a specific topic.
Here are a bunch of sentence frames you can give to your students, so they’ll know what is expected from them.
- “The strengths of ______ are ______ and _______ . However, I find that ______ is a big disadvantage. “
- “While I agree with ______ because ______, I also think that _______.”
- “I appreciate _____ because _______.”
- “Can you please clarify what you mean when you say ______?”
- “I do not share his/her point of view on ______ because I believe that ______. We can also look at _____ from another angle.”
- “I’m still not convinced that _______ because I believe ______.”
- “Adding onto ____’s contribution, I would also like to say ________.”
- “How does _____ explain _____?”
- “While _______ makes a great point, I think that _________.”
- “While I can see why _______ said _______, I think differently because _______.”
Reflective Questions for Students After the Fishbowl Discussion
After all of the students rotate and the fishbowl discussion is finished, leave some time for reflection. Ask students how they think the discussion went and what they’ve learned.
Below is a list of reflective questions that will help you get valuable feedback.
- What did you like most about this activity, and why?
- What did you dislike about this activity, and why?
- What did you learn from this activity?
- Did something surprise you today, and why?
- Did you find it hard to express your opinion, and why?
- What was most challenging about this activity?
- What do you think we missed or needs to be improved?
- What would help you to feel more comfortable while debating?
- Did your classmates help you better understand the topic, and how?
- What do you think would be a good fishbowl discussion topic for the future?
How to Grade Fishbowl Discussions?
Finally, the last element in organizing fishbowl discussions for your students is to make an assessment checklist through which you can objectively grade them. There are a few different ways to accomplish this, but here’s one simple and pretty straightforward method developed by Mark Fellowes and shared over at the RPS Content Literacies – the Fishbowl Assessment Checklist.
Before You Leave
We’ve shared this detailed guide on how to organize fishbowl discussions for students with the hope that it can help a lot of teachers and tutors to develop effective collaboration and communication in the classroom. We went through the basic building blocks of successful fishbowl discussions and provided a number of practical examples and resources you can implement during the discussion.
Feel free to also check out our website where you can browse our library of premium quality educational materials, printable worksheets, and teaching resources for all your needs throughout the year. On top of that, we regularly update our blog with insightful articles that every parent, teacher, or homeschool tutor will find useful.
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