Monday, July 15, 2013

The Fishbowl, an Active Learning Technique

The “fishbowl” is an active learning technique appropriate for any class with a discussion or critical-thinking component. In this activity, an inner ring of students form the fishbowl, with an outer ring observing them.

The inner ring’s discussion might revolve around problem-solving—such as choosing the best contractor to dispose of waste or the best way to organize a paragraph— or around a debate, such as whether Victor Frankenstein has treated his creation fairly or whether airport scanners are an invasion of privacy. Any discussion topic that might be assigned to multiple small groups in a class can be used here.

The outer ring of spectators evaluate the inner ring’s performance. This works best if students are given particular roles, such as reporters, silent contributors (who will report on what they might have said), and shadowers who are assigned to a specific contributor. Students might consider questions such as:

  • Did the discussants use the text to support their arguments?
  • Did they use analytical language?
  • Did they use reasons and evidence?
  • Did they make connections to what someone else was saying?
  • Did they agree or disagree with someone else?
Other options include tap-ins, in which someone in the outer ring takes the place of a discussant, and reversals in which the outer ring has to continue the conversation of the inner ring.

This activity emphasizes self-reflection, which has been shown to be vital for critical thinking and transfer across courses.

For more on the fishbowl:
            How KIPP Teachers Learn to Teach Critical Thinking (YouTube)
            “Fishbowl” on Facing History and Ourselves


  1. I've heard of this, but never tried it. How has it worked for you?

  2. The version I used was with a debate on Victor Frankenstein. 1/3 of the class was the defense, 1/3 was the prosecution, and 1/3 was the jury, who was supposed to comment on how each side made their case. Unfortunately, I didn't give them specific enough directions. Next time, I'll know better.

  3. We did this yesterday in Comp I. It went well. Four students talked in the center, and I assigned roles to the rest. It got most of the class involved and it required some reflection. The only thing I hadn't expected was that I needed to be in the center, too. Next time, I'll assign some students to shadow me.