Strategy

Fishbowl

A Fishbowl is a large group activity where several students participate in a discussion while the remaining students (who are usually seated in a circle surrounding them) observe the conversation. To implement a Fishbowl discussion, the teacher first chooses a discussion prompt and identifies specific discussion skills for students to incorporate in their conversation (i.e., asking open ended questions, using a talking piece, or disagreeing respectfully). The teacher explains these objectives to the class before selected students participate in the small group discussion. After the Fishbowl discussion has ended, all students join in a second conversation to reflect on the process and techniques used during the original discussion. Fishbowl discussions give students the opportunity to practice and evaluate discussion techniques and develop social skills. Fishbowls can also promote classroom community by encouraging students to consider multiple perspectives and build common understandings.

Ready-to-Use Resources

Sentence Frames

Discussion Sentence Frames

A collection of sentence starters to help students frame their thoughts, questions, and analyses in a respectful but meaningful way.

Grade 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12 · English Language Arts, Language, Listening, Speaking · 2 pages


Implementation Tips

Discussion Prompts
Select prompts that are open-ended and allow for multiple viewpoints. Prompts can include questions to deepen understanding of a current area of study (e.g., Which character in To Kill a Mockingbird do you most empathize with?), address social/emotional development (e.g., What makes someone a good friend?), or introduce a new topic (e.g., Based on these images of King Tut’s tomb, what do you think ancient Egyptians believed about life after death?).
Preparing Students
Select students to participate in the Fishbowl discussion who can provide strong models of targeted skills. You can also select students who might benefit from further practice of specific discussion skills or strategies. It is important to inform Fishbowl participants beforehand and provide opportunities for all students to reflect on the discussion topic prior to the Fishbowl activity (e.g., assign for homework the night before, students share ideas with partner before discussion, etc.).
Discussion Format/Sentence Frames
Determine a discussion format or technique that you would like students participating in the initial Fishbowl conversation to utilize. For example, students can demonstrate supporting claims with evidence, asking follow-up questions, or restating ideas using provided sentence frames. Share these goals with students prior to the Fishbowl and pre-teach the strategies if necessary. Students can be given opportunities to practice the skills in smaller groups or pairs before the Fishbowl discussion.
Student Expectations
Set expectations for roles of participants and observers during Fishbowl discussions. Some expectations for observers might include: No side conversations, listen attentively, and write notes of key ideas or observations from discussion ([[http://www.scienceteacherprogram.org/genscience/fishbowl_files/fishbowl.pdf|sample note-taking templates]]). Possible expectations for participants might include: One person speaks at a time, give everyone a chance to speak, and share ideas respectfully. These expectations should be visible to students during the Fishbowl discussion (e.g., posted on wall, handouts).
Reflection
Provide time for students to reflect after the Fishbowl discussion. This reflection conversation should include all students and allows students to process both the ideas shared and techniques utilized during the discussion. The teacher can help guide the reflection with questions such as: What ideas stood out to you during the discussion? Did you notice times when group members used good open-ended questions? Do you have any questions or new ideas following the discussion?
Classroom Set-Up
Arrange chairs and/or desks so that all students are able to see and hear the Fishbowl discussion comfortably. Often the small group sits in a cluster or circle in the middle of a large circle formed by the remaining students. The small group of students can also sit at the front of the class where they can be seen and heard by other students.
Teacher Role
Allow students participating in the Fishbowl discussion to guide their own conversation. During Fishbowl activities, the teacher typically acts as a facilitator, but they can also strategically insert themselves into the discussion to model complex skills or procedures or to help students navigate a difficult topic.

Examples

Pre-Teaching Discussion Skills
After a teacher introduces how to build on another person’s ideas during a discussion, the teacher asks students to practice this skill in conversations with partners about who they believe is the most powerful superhero. The teacher then enlists volunteers to model the skill in a Fishbowl discussion for the entire group. During the secondary discussion, students discuss the impact of using the new technique as well as how to effectively use it. Following the Fishbowl, the teacher can encourage students to incorporate this skill during other classroom activities.
Reinforcing Content-Related Skills
In place of the traditional Fishbowl discussion, Fishbowl participants in a math class discuss and demonstrate how to solve a multistep word problem. During their discussion, they record their models and procedures on a large piece of paper that can be seen by the rest of the class. After Fishbowl participants finish solving the problem, the entire class discusses the skills, task steps, and problem solving strategies that they observed and evaluates the solution. Students can also use this approach to engage in other content-related tasks such as demonstrating scientific procedures and modeling writing forms.
Summative Activity
To review and demonstrate knowledge at the end of a unit, a class begins by brainstorming questions related to the content (e.g., How are plant and animal cells different? What part of the cell do you think is most important?). Then, a group of students participate in a Fishbowl discussion about one of the questions. After this discussion, the teacher selects new Fishbowl participants to address a different question and repeats this process until all questions have been discussed. The teacher later includes some of these questions on the unit test.

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