Fishbowl Discussion

After the silent discussion, this is my favorite activity. Many people fear it, but I think I’ve got it to an art form by now. I use it in all of my classes of less than 60 students, but it could be adapted for larger classes as well.

The Set Up

Put 6-8 chairs in the center of the room, facing in a circle. This is the fishbowl. Arrange the rest of the chairs around the circle. If possible, have it so that no one in the outer circle is sitting in front of someone else.

There are many ways to create the groups for the fishbowl. Sometimes I assign students randomly, other times I ask for volunteers. You can also make the bowls more intentional, for example by having students volunteer by social identity or some other grouping. In my Hunger Games class, one of the topics was resilience, and students read a chapter on resilience and described the pattern they thought Katniss fit into. For the fishbowls, I had the students sign up based on what pattern they had chosen (i.e., all students who chose one pattern in a group). In my classes, I make sure all students participate in one bowl, but this may not be feasible for larger classes.

The Discussion

Have the students sit in the inner circle of chairs and talk for 10-15 minutes. The students outside the fishbowl listen quietly (sometimes I ask them to take notes). After each group, I pause for five minutes and ask:

  • People inside the circle:
    • What are some major points that came out of your conversation?
  • People outside the circle:
    • What did you notice about the discussion?
    • What questions do you have for the folks inside the circle?
    • What did the discussion make you think of?
    • Do you have anything to add?

We then move on to the next group. You as the instructor can choose to sit inside the fishbowl or outside of it. For classes new to the technique, I sit inside the fishbowl so that I can guide the discussion and prompt students who might be quieter. Experienced or talkative groups may not need you inside the fishbowl.

This page has some great additional questions and a closing small group discussion you can use:



The success of this technique depends on how you manage cognitive and motivational engagement, which occurs through the questions you ask. The reason people don’t like this discussion is because students feel put on the spot and there is a high potential for not having the right answer or the most insightful comment. I manage this in several ways: First, the topic of the discussion is not facts from the reading–it’s often their personal experience. When I do fishbowls around social identity, I can ask students to speak about when they first noticed that they were a girl or a boy, or what messages they got about being a girl or a boy. Any student can answer those questions. I can then follow up by asking them to connect their experience to the reading. Second, if I am asking them to form an opinion, they have had time to develop that opinion. For the resilience fishbowls, the students read a chapter and then wrote a homework assignment on what pattern they thought Katniss matched. In the fishbowl, I asked them to share those reflections. The second step was equally important, though. They didn’t simply report out what they had written–as a group they had to justify their responses and speak to the points other fishbowls (who had argued a different pattern) had brought up. Third, students don’t have to speak if they don’t have anything to say. Although I try to structure the conversation so that everyone can contribute, sometimes students don’t have much to add. When I am sitting in the fishbowl, I will invite a quiet student to speak, but I make it clear that they don’t need to say something just to fill up time.

These strategies help with motivational engagement as well. Students are not going to be interested in hearing their classmates repeat information they already know. Many will be interested in hearing about their peer’s lives, and many will enjoy the opportunity to share their own experiences. Students want to feel like their contributions are valuable and necessary to the discussion. The students outside the circle must remain engaged as well. That’s why I allow the intermissions where students outside contribute and get the chance to add to the conversation. Also, the discussion questions inside the bowls should build on each other so that the students in the later discussions are building on the points that came up earlier. From a classroom process perspective, it can also be useful to have students reflect on what it felt like to have to stay silent and really listen to their peers. You also might want to give students the opportunity to show appreciation for their classmate’s insights, so that everyone realizes how important their contributions were. Overall, it’s important that the discussions be seen as a collective effort where the students are discussing to generate new insights.

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