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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

http://www.flickr.com/photos/loungerie/4099464004/

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.

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