Fishbowl Discussion

Students can learn a great deal about a topic--and about discussion itself--by carefully observing their peers during discussion. Watching one's peers draw inferences, provide evidence, make assumptions, and so on can make the process of analyzing an argument more real and engaging.

In this activity, students are separated into two groups, with one group discussing a question or issue provided by the instructor "in the fishbowl” and the other students observing the discussion. In large classes, you can choose a small group to be in the fishbowl at the front of the room.

Students should have advanced notice about the fishbowl activity, so they can be sure to prepare, and students observing must be assigned some task, or they will have no reason to pay attention. A common task to give observers is to watch for assumptions that are being made by the fishbowl participants, or to track what kinds of "functional roles" are being played in the discussion. For this activity, it is important to prepare observers by providing them with a description of functional roles and how to look for them. Follow-up discussion should be based mostly upon what the observers saw, rather than what the actual fishbowl participants experienced.

Basic Fishbowl Discussion

A common task to give students in the fishbowl is a problem-solving task requiring them to come to consensus on a solution or position. Of course, a case related to your course content is the most appropriate, but when the topic is less important than the discussion itself, "survival Scenarios" are quite popular for this, like this alpine survival exercise.

The empty chair

Some teachers include an empty chair in the fishbowl circle, so that if an observing student feels they absolutely must make a comment, they can move into the empty chair, make their comment, then return to their seat.

Progressive fishbowls

Some teachers have students rotate in groups through "the fishbowl," either picking up the same topic of conversation where the last group left off, or discussing what they observed in the other group"s conversation, or starting with a new topic.

Framing this activity for success

We all want students to carry our teachings into their lives. Often, however, we must make our intentions very plain for students to understand that an assignment will equip them with skills and empower them, and is not an arbitrary hoop through which they must jump.

For this reason, frame each activity using these four steps:

  1. Introduce the activity by making clear the specific critical thinking skill the assignment will give them practice using. They may not understand the precise definition of the term, so provide it in writing on the board or overhead. (As a reminder, definitions are here.)
  2. Share examples of how this skill can serve them in their daily lives (e.g., guiding them to buy better products, improving their performance in other classes, advancing their career, communicating better with people they care about, better understanding their own experiences, etc.).
  3. Conduct the activity as described below, making it as active and interactive as possible. When students can talk about their thinking, that thinking moves forward. Teaching for critical thinking is teaching for active learning.
  4. Conclude the activity by reflecting back to students examples that you saw of them using the critical thinking skill effectively, and reminding them to consider the relevance of that skill in other aspects of their. Repeating the examples given in Step 2 may be appropriate, as students will have a different understanding of the skill once they have experienced the assignment.