One action figure stands outside of a tank of water looking at another action figure inside of the tank.

Fishbowl Discussion


Activity aim: to model classroom discussion; to encourage more class participation;

Materials needed: Nothing!

Time estimated: 45-60 minutes (it can be shorter than this)

Activity description:
Using the fishbowl technique (and its many variations!) to facilitate class discussions can be a way to encourage more student voices and more active listening. In a fishbowl, one group of students discuss a list of questions or have a more free-form conversation while the other half of the class listen and either take notes or wait to intervene.

Here are some steps to follow to set up a fishbowl conversation.
1. Before the fishbowl begins, students might freewrite about the topic or generate a list of questions for the other group to answer. Alternatively, students could generate these questions as homework the night before and bring them to class, or the instructor could generate a list of questions. Another option: students in each group will take a position (i.e. Group 1 will discuss the text we read for homework from the perspective of Character A, Group 2 will discuss it from the perspective of Character B, etc.), and so the pre-discussion work (whether it’s completed in class or as homework) will allow individual students to prepare.

2. Divide students into groups. About 6-10 students per group is generally optimal.

3. Explain the directions before the discussion begins. The students in the fishbowl will discuss the questions / text / etc. while the others listen, and then other students will join the fishbowl while the initial talkers sit in the audience.

4. To encourage active listening, students who are not participating in the fishbowl should have a task to complete while the others are talking. For example: Group 2 should listen to Group 1 and address only the points that they make from the position of Character B. Or individual students from Group 2 can tap students from Group 1 when they want to make a point so that the Group 1 student joins the audience and the Group 2 student takes a place in the fishbowl.

5. It might be helpful to do a follow-up writing exercise when the conversation has ended. For example:

  • What is one idea that you “borrowed” and one idea that you “lent” today during the discussion?
  • Group 1 discussed the book from Character A’s perspective, and Group 2 discussed it from Character B’s perspective. How might Character C respond to these questions?
  • Write a few “ground rules” for the next time we conduct a fishbowl conversation or a class discussion. What are some helpful discussion techniques? What is less helpful? What’s the purpose of conducting a class discussion?

Image credit: JD Hancock