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.
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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.