The Fishbowl – Not Your Normal Discussion

As a science teacher, we don't get many opportunities to discuss difficult topics. Sure, content discussion happen, but I envy the english and philosophy teachers who get to discuss the deep thinking questions. True debate is hard to come by with some of the other more "empirical" contents.

My AP Chemistry class was debating a particular concept (what is the pH of water) in class and I decided to see what we could do with it. I knew the "answer," but a lot of students were struggling with the idea that water's pH could be lower than 7 (neutral) at different temperatures. I decided we would fishbowl this question to try and come up with an answer.

In a fishbowl, there are two groups...the outside observers and the fish

inside the bowl. The inside group is having a "traditional" discussion...oral debate and conversation. The outside group, on the other hand, is in a chat room (or public document) and they are having their own discussion about the inside group. Many times, these lead to two completely different discussions.

Some tips if you're interested in trying out a fishbowl discussion:

  1. Your questions has to be open ended.  Discussions are no fun if everyone agrees.  Try having an open-ended discussion in which there is no one "right" answer.  I also have found that controversial questions lead to good discussion.  Some I've heard of: "Was Kierkegaard really an existentialist?," "What is the most significant development of the 20th century?," "How did the end of WWII change European and Asian history?"
  2. Be okay with arguments and disagreements. Students don't always need to agree to find meaning in discussion.  Obviously, keep it civil, but if minds aren't made up, that's fine.
  3. Pre-assign groups (if necessary). This is not a come-in-and-start sort of discussion.  There needs to be some preparation by students.  Some teachers have half the students students blog the information and the other half reads the blogs and then becomes the inner discussion group.  This works well with particular concepts, but might not always be necessary.
  4. Have follow-up questions ready. Not all discussion will reach an adequate depth when they start.  Be ready to have some probing follow-up questions to push students to deeper levels.  Be willing to play devil's advocate to get them thinking about topics form a different perspective.  Questions or statements that catch them off guard are always good, too.
  5. Pick an outside discussion medium before starting.  In other words, make sure the chat room works.  One good one is Chatzy.  Totally free, instant chat rooms.  One problem is that if you have a large group on a school network, Chatzy will filter the chat because the same IP address is sending information and it is marked as spam.  The way around this is to have students log in with their Facebook accounts...the IP marking is overridden then because it recognizes individual users instead of "guests."  Another good option is TypeWithMe.  Not a huge fan because it isn't as quick as Chatzy, but there are no IP limitations.  You can export chats from both to distribute to students after the discussion.
  6. Consider recording the chat.  With free recording software readily available, it isn't hard to record a discussion for later reference.  Audacity is probably the most popular freeware for recording audio.

Discussion can lead to some of the most meaningful learning.  Consider taking a day to step away from cramming in content to give students an opportunity to find true meaning through debate.  Enjoy the struggle of learning first-hand.

7 thoughts on “The Fishbowl – Not Your Normal Discussion

  1. […] have to be honest…I almost posted this yesterday, about an hour after I posted about the fishbowl discussion.  But, I decided to bite my tongue and think through everything that was flying through my […]

  2. Brian says:

    Love the fish bowl idea. I’ll have to try it out sometime.

    I find that debate and argument are actually pretty easy in the science classroom, depending on the question. I’ve gotten a lot of traction with this question

  3. Reflections » Blog Archive » Fish and Fishermen? says:

    […] task in order to keep them focused on the discussion.  Please follow the links to read more about how to set up a fishbowl, when to use a fishbowl approach, and variations in the […]

  4. […] on the fly if need be. No internet? No problem…let’s sit in groups and discuss why water is neutral. The day we begin to rely on a single tool in teaching is the day we close our minds to […]

  5. Lowell Thomson says:

    Love the idea, but as always I struggle with how to find time. I think I might have to bite the proverbial bullet and just give it a try. Your idea of Facebook for the chatroom login wouldn’t work at my school, though, as FB is blocked. (Yes, students could use their phones…I’d be OK with that as an alternative.)

    • This article is a couple years old, and there are a lot more tools you can use for the backchannel. I would suggest something like TodaysMeet that can be exported as a saved PDF at the end.

      • Lowell Thomson says:

        Brian, Thanks for the tip on TodaysMeet. I’m going to try it today for a discussion in my MYP Chemistry Grade 10 class about an article related to Phase Change Materials.

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