Fishbowl: Student-led “Forum” Discussions

Fishbowl

Think of people standing around a free-standing tank at an aquarium. There may be a few fish in the tank, and there may be a lot more people standing around than there are fish. The people are watching everything the fish do, even discussing what the fish are doing. The fish are swimming around, possibly communicating in subtle ways that are beyond the watchers. But there is basically no communication between the fish inside the tank and the people observing them. That is the general idea behind Fishbowl.

Fishbowl for WP

Three or four “fish” sit facing each other in the center of the classroom. They form the fishbowl. The rest of the students position their seats around the fishbowl as observers. The “fish” discuss the assigned topic, while outside the tank the observers listen to what the fish are saying, take notes, and jot down questions to ask the fish later. As in any discussion, the fish make supportable statements, ask each other questions, request clarification, respond to remarks, extrapolate, etc.

At the conclusion of the discussion, observers interact with the fish, unlike with real fish in real aquaria. The observers ask for clarification on points made by certain fish or respond to statements made by any fish; they comment on any question or discussion point, or add examples of their own that support or refute a fish’s comments. In addition, the observers comment on the mechanics of the discussion, and offer ways to improve fish interaction.

To get started, the instructor can introduce the concept of Fishbowl to the class the day before. The topic of discussion is presented, and reading (or research) is assigned. Students prepare for the discussion, as none of them know who will be a fish. The next day, the instructor announces the fish, and the observers move their seats into a circle around the fish in the center.

The first time or two, ask for volunteers. After that, select students of mixed ability levels, or a mixture of less talkative and more talkative students to be the fish.

So what happens during Fishbowl?

The instructor is not the one doing the teaching. The instructor may moderate and sum up, but the teaching is done by the students.

  • Students learn that there is not necessarily one right answer.
  • Students learn that they have something to share, and that they can learn from each other.
  • Students learn to critique and to take constructive criticism.

How can Fishbowl be used with younger learners?

In Kindergarten through third grade, Fishbowl could be used for Show-and-Tell activities. As the Fish discuss each other’s Show-and-Tell, the Observers might find they have more questions. The discussions might stimulate Show-and-Tell ideas for students who have difficulty coming up with something to share.

Fishbowl can be used to discuss a reading passage or a story the teacher just read. It can be used to discuss history or science concepts, and even explaining how to do an arithmetic skill or solve a word problem.

Implementation

Fishbowl is easy to implement, but may take several tries before all students are comfortable with it and are learning together. However, the possibilities of Fishbowl and other collaborative learning techniques are only limited by the combined imaginations of the teacher and students. And the best part is, collaborative learning techniques make the teacher’s job a lot easier in the long run.

Some parameters:

  1. Make certain there are “rules” of participation in place, such as talking out of turn, watchers not interrupting fishbowl participants, showing respect for each other, tolerating different views, etc.
  2. Older children can participate in discussions for longer periods, but it is OK to limit the time in the fishbowl to 15 to 20 minutes. Even with discussion afterwards, it is still possible to get in a second round of “fishbowl” with fresh participants. Just leave enough time at the end of the class period for summation and closure.
  3. Younger children may need only 5 minutes per “fishbowl” activity group, allowing either more fishbowls to be formed or time for follow-up or different activities.
  4. If older students can “tolerate” more than one fishbowl occurring simultaneously, that’s fine–as long as the teaching staff is willing to split its attention among multiple groups.
  5. Often, special education students–especially those with attention and/or behavior problems–need closer monitoring. It is a good idea for a classroom adult to be standing/sitting near the most problematic student(s) to provide behavior cues, if needed.

Fishbowl works as well at the university level as it does at the pre-school level, with certain adjustments–such as number of independent groups, length of discussion period, age-appropriate and lesson-appropriate topics. You as the class educator know your students best and know what the students can handle.

Outcomes:

Students are more apt to come to class prepared. Students are responsible for reviewing material before class, and will often be more prepared than if all they have to do is sit through a lecture. Few students want to undergo the embarrassment of being “clueless” if they are part of the discussion.

Students practice discussion techniques and general forms of inquiry as they participate inside the fishbowl or outside.

Students develop listening and questioning skills.

Students learn aspects of critical thinking skills as they learn to question certain assertions, especially if what a fishbowl participant says is not the interpretation of the material that another student–within or outside the fishbowl–understood during preparation (or even listening).

After a while, students develop self-confidence in their academic work, whether related to the reading/preparation material or from the proposition of a new idea.

Creative thinking might follow, as long as ideas flow from the preparatory material or from internet/library searches. Outside material should be backed up with references and, if possible, examples.

And there are more positive outcomes that are too numerous to mention.

Fishbowl encourages freedom of expression. This is a single technique among many that allow students to freely discuss and academic/school-related social topics. It leads to exploration without a teacher intervening and telling the student he/she is wrong. So long as the discussion is on topic, allowing the students to monitor the rules to the greatest extent possible can help more shy students gain some confidence in what they know, even if it comes from personal experience or something seen on the TV or internet.

Feel free to contact me with questions about Fishbowl. Other techniques will be posted in the future.

 

#educ_dr

History, Ignorance, and Loss of Critical Thinking Skills

While scrolling through friends’ recent Facebook posts, one post stopped me in my tracks–for two reasons. First, one of the schools that granted me a degree was mentioned in the headline (Texas Tech); second, because the post referred to political “questions” asked of a sample of the school’s undergraduate population. The commentary questions just what students are learning about history in K-12 classes. [Here’s the link to the post, complete with video: http://www.ifyouonlynews.com/politics/texas-tech-students-give-jaw-droppingly-shocking-answers-political-questions-video/] Spoiler alert: the students were not clear on what the U.S. Civil War was!

After re-posting this to my time line, a friend included a link to another site that talks about the dumbing down of America and the American populae’s anti-intellectual stance [http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/wired-success/201407/anti-intellectualism-and-the-dumbing-down-america].  My inference from this post from Psychology Today goes beyond the textual content and into the realm of critical thinking skills.

It is not secret that critical thinking skills have suffered among American school students. Many educators have written collective tomes on the need to teach critical thinking skills to students. However, a quick search through the files of the US government’s Institute of Educational Sciences–and specifically the more data-driven file of the National Center for Education Statistics–returns nothing on the search term “critical thinking” as far back as 2000! Even my favorite annual go-to data-intensive publication–Digest of Education Statistics 2xxx–appears to have stopped collecting (or perhaps analyzing–data related to this most venerated skill. Yet, today’s educators continue to cry out for ways to develop critical thinking skills.

And what are critical thinking skills, anyway?

Although a simple search returns pages of sites dealing with critical thinking and its definitions, attributes, and how-to-teach sites, my own definition–refined after 40+ years as an educator–comes down to this: it is the analysis of information for verity and logic, and the information’s truth in the current or unique social culture that employs such logic. Critical thinking includes everything from wondering how an author or researcher has come to a conclusion or supported an allegation or statement; to where in the cupboard a particular mug fits best for ease of access and without disrupting the quick access to other items in the cupboard. It is the ability to step back and think rather than act on impulse, so that the immediate desire to punch out the playground bully is overcome by the lack of desire to end up in the Principal’s office. It is the ability to separate out the “truths” of a premise or observation from the “prejudices” inherent in its interpretation.

Critical thinking is based on what we knew a minute ago versus what we know this minute and what we need to know for the next minute. It is the way in which we learn from our personal experiences, experiences of others through books and media, parental experiences, teachings of religious institutions and academic texts and facilitators. With each new piece of information, one should think to oneself, “How does this fit into my personal philosophy of life? How does it fit into what I learned in that boring history lesson on the Civil War? How did Attila manage to cross the Alps, and why was he willing to try a new form of conveyance–elephants as opposed to Steppe ponies–to do so? What did he risk? What were his goals? Why did he risk what he already had?…And how does all this fit into the risks my boss is taking with the presentation of his ideas for a brand new project? And if Bill Gates hadn’t used the free computer software that IBM made public because the operating system was developed under a federal grant–if he hadn’t used that information to tweak and improve the DOS operating system–would someone else had done it? Was it legal to use the published code; why or why not? etc.

What critical thinking does NOT include finding only flaws or only premises contrary to our own personal beliefs. Denigrating the President for errors cannot be isolated from recognizing and lauding his/her successes. In critical thinking, the particular Christian precepts of one’s beliefs should not be used to judge the beliefs of a person practicing Hindu. Each are driven by an historical and cultural milieu that has brought an individual to his/her lifestyle and belief system. Each can adjust to a host of social expectations without sacrificing his/her World View; each world view deserves respect and, whenever possible, some level of understanding.

What critical thinking should lead to is the desire to learn more about an idea or topic about which one has little or no information. Thus, critical thinking is the very foundation of the whole concept of learning–the quest to know more about a given subject.

This is clearly a very short post and one that goes into little detail about anything. I am not an expert on anything, but rather a life-long learner of how new ideas or concepts that are new to me can be fit into my ever-growing understanding of the world around me. Even at the age of (almost) 65, there is still much to learn, much to know, much to accommodate into my  personal world view. But I know this and my curiosity continues to grow because, as a child in school, I was taught critical thinking skills that have been squashed in recent decades to fulfill the need to make students score higher on some arbitrary “universal” test of knowledge for the particular grade level.

Educators are professionals. Some educators are “naturals;” among them, many recognize the importance of educating themselves about such topics as child development, cultural diversity, thinking processes and theories, student involvement, classroom management, etc. Other educators–especially those who are in the process of becoming educators–get classes specifically addressing these and other topics; some are even able to formulate their own theories of how each class integrates with other classes in the educational environment, causing them to view education as more than the sum of a variety of topics under study at a given point. These latter–both the untrained information seekers and the in-training global thinkers–are the heart and soul of education, whether in the United States, here in the country of Sint Maarten, China, Russia; European, South American, African, Asian, Australian, and other earthly regions. These are the individuals who will teach their students to become critical thinkers, even if they must “teach to the test” to keep their jobs.

The thing is, the best way to teach to the test is to simply teach in a non-rote, exciting manner. There are certainly places where rote education is needed–learning alphabetization, memorizing multiplication tables, learning songs in music class, etc.–but most education sticks best with students who are able to make sense of what they are learning within the context of their current or future world environments. In doing so, they learn to separate what makes sense from what does not, how elements of one world view is similar to elements of another world view, etc. This is how critical thinking is most effectively learned–comparison and contrast, similarities and differences, analysis of information based on prior learning and observation, perhaps synthesis into a new idea or world view… This is the learning of critical thinking at its finest.

And, by the way, behavioral disruptions that use critical thinking techniques–including the projection of possible outcomes based on the theoretical choice of a specific action or reaction–result in better classroom and social management than simply pointing out a student’s misdeed without analysis or critique, or simply stating what the required appropriate behavior ought to be substituted. Every student has a history of behaviors that can be employed to critically determine what has worked in the past and what has brought on undesired consequences. Using students’ own history to discuss cultural and social history works the same way.

Enough said.

P.S. The Civil War in the US was fought between the North (any state north of the Mason-Dixon Line) and the South (states below that line), although there were some exceptions. The North called itself The Union (Yankees), while the South called itself The Confederacy (Rebels). The major issue is said to have been slavery, but the issue of slavery was primarily one of economics, so that not all Northerners believed in the abolition of slavery and not all Southerners believed it was OK to own another human being. In the end, the Union (North) won the war, despite heavy losses of lives on both sides. The result was the end to slavery in the South, but also a great deal of resentment among white former plantation owners against persons of color, resulting in segregation–that is, there were areas where only whites could be present and other areas “reserved” for people of color. This occurred almost as much in the North as in the South, as prejudice has no boundaries. Although today there is much less antipathy among whites toward peoples of color, prejudice continues to survive in the form of life style, immigration, educational attainment, professions, religious choices, etc. A little bit of critical thinking will open the eyes of many who expect everyone else to be like them–hopefully. Thus, both critical thinking skills and the teaching of tolerance go hand in hand.

 

#educ_dr

 

I’m Ba-ack!

This post is an explanation of my absence, and a preview to anticipated changes over the next several months.  Read on…

It has been a while since I’ve posted anything.  A few days ago, when I tried to enter a new post, I discovered it had disappeared.  All I could think about was years’ worth of data down the tubes.  Quite a bit of activity involving this site occurred during the past several months, it turns out, which collectively resulted in the site “going away” temporarily.  No, I didn’t miss any payments; and no, I didn’t accidentally wreck it myself. Here’s what happened.

Recently, this site was to be updated by someone, a professional site developer and marketing person who also happens to be a relative. Instead of being updated, the site was basically destroyed.  My suspicion is that the updater was less familiar with the site configuration than she believed herself to be.  Unfortunately, she did not want to admit this and made the classic “young person’s” mistake of not backing up the site before “updating” it.  I was afraid I would need to start all over again.  However, between WordPress and GoDaddy (where I host this site), enough backup information was available from the last successful post on this site that everything was restored.  (Hooray for WordPress and GoDaddy!!)  From now on, all changes will be done by me, regardless of my limited computing skills. Both companies offer plenty of resources and certified web site developers that, if I get frustrated, professional help is available.

Another reason for no activity here: a month or two ago, a serious illness knocked the wind out of my sails, leaving me unable to work much on the computer at all, much less at almost anything else.  Although I still have more “off” days than “on” ones, I’ve made the decision to concentrate on my blogs and the distribution of information related to education, and stop worrying about consulting.  There will be some changes to the way the site looks as well as the way the site operates.  However, the information will be as up to date as possible, and I hope to reach not only education professionals, but also parents and other professionals who work with children.  Features I hope to add include webinars and recorded videos targeted at learning problems and behavioral issues.  There will be guest blogging professionals, both in text and visual media.  Links to related reading and other materials and resources will be increased for your convenience.  These changes will take place gradually, so don’t expect everything at once.  As I said, I’m no longer a professional computing person, and it will take some time to get everything up to speed.  But updating this site will be as much a learning experience for me as a way to share what I know, especially about special education and behavioral issues.

So please bear with me as this site gradually develops into something more useful to all of us.  Thanks for your patience with me and support for the posts to date.  Without your readership, this blog would have folded long ago.

Watch for the changes!

Mostly, watch for my next posts that might be important to you and your students or offspring.

#educ_dr