Everything that Could Go Wrong with Your Fishbowl Discussions

And why you should do them anyway

One of the reasons I started Next Time Teaching was to share what I’ve learned–both about what works and what doesn’t–from 19 years of teaching and to try to help other teachers not have to reinvent wheels.  Believe me, I’ve made thousands of mistakes.  Every day, in every lesson.  If I can save you from making any of the same mistakes, I’m happy.  So let’s focus today on problems with fishbowl discussions.  Whether you’ve never heard of them, want to try one, or have done them a bunch of times, hopefully thinking through some of the potential things that can go wrong ahead of time will help your next fishbowls go more smoothly.

What’s a fishbowl discussion?

A fishbowl discussion is a teaching strategy where you set up a discussion among a small group of students in the middle of the classroom while the rest of the students sit on the outside and listen (possibly with a listening activity, we’ll get to that in a minute).  It’s different than stations or other small group work where everyone is involved in their own discussion because in a fishbowl most of the class is observing rather than participating.  As a general starting point, I’d say a group of 6-8 talking for about 15-20 minutes makes a good fishbowl.  Usually fishbowls are student-led with minimal participation by the teacher.  In most cases, you probably want to plan on having every student participate in a fishbowl within a set amount of time (a week, the unit, the grading term, etc.).  They can be about anything your class would have a discussion about: the previous night’s reading, their own writing, their thoughts on thematic connections between texts, etc.  There’s more info here, here, and here.

Why would I do fishbowl discussions?

I think one of the most important goals of a fishbowl should be to take advantage of the fact that most kids are observing and use that opportunity to work on discussion itself.  Although you can debrief any discussion, or set goals for any discussion, it’s hard for kids to multi-task.  If they’re trying to think about what to say about the book, it might be hard for them to focus on discussion skills such as playing devil’s advocate, using academic language sentence stems, inviting others into the discussion, or whatever you want to work on.  Fishbowls allow the observers to focus on those elements–both when they’re being used and when they could be used if they’re missing.  Hopefully some of that practice sinks in so you see improvement in future whole class discussions.

Fishbowls are also a great opportunity for you to grade discussion.  Students have more opportunity to speak since there are less participants in the discussion and you have more time to think about their responses since you’re not also trying to respond or manage the discussion. Since students are leading the discussion, fishbowls are also a good way to see how kids are thinking about the material and what they notice and find worth discussing themselves.  You can set them up as either a summative assessment or a formative assessment.

What could go wrong with my fishbowl discussions?

Okay, here’s where it gets interesting.  We all know the quote about the best-laid plans that the title Of Mice and Men comes from, and fishbowls are no different.  Although one of the big advantages of fishbowls is the chance for a lot of the class to observe the discussion, this set-up can also create problems.  Big ones.  Kids sleeping, absorbed in technology, or horsing around because, you know, I’m not in the fishbowl, so I’m off the hook.  So let’s deal with those problems first.

Dealing with problems with the observers

One of the most important things to establish ahead of time is the expectation that observers are doing something.  In my classroom, I call that something fish watching.  I use this simple sheet, and I assign outside observers a “fish” to watch by writing the names of the participants in the fishbowl on the papers ahead of time and then passing them out randomly.  I like the fish watching sheet because it keeps the observers involved without being too complicated or onerous and I can easily adjust it to fit what we’re working on in terms of discussion skills. Another advantage of the fishwatching sheet is that kids get more feedback and you get more input into a grade.

Personally, I like to have the fish watching sheet printed in hard copy and all phones and devices away during fishbowls.  We spend enough of our lives responding to texts and tweets and digital stimuli that I think listening is a gift we can give to others that benefits us as well. But if you want to explore having the fishbowl observers respond digitally, there are apps like backchannel that are used for that purpose.  I’ve also seen set-ups where in addition to fish and fish watchers, some students are assigned the role of fish coach and there’s a mid-discussion break for them to share suggestions with their fish.

Another way that you can keep the outside observers focused on the discussion is to include an open chair and the possibility for them to participate.  Again, this works best if expectations are clear from the beginning: one person at a time who is not part of the fishbowl group can come up and briefly sit in the open chair in order to pose a question, share a relevant anecdote, point out a quote, etc.

open chairs in fishbowl discussions

The fierce open chair blocker

I give participation points for this because I rely heavily on participation grades, but that’s a whole nother topic.  In my experience, even with participation points, the open chair doesn’t get a lot of use, but I still include it because I think it’s important to normalize the idea that students might have passionate opinions and burning questions.  Having said that, I have also had a class or two where the open chair was very well-used, to the point of being a distraction that kept the fishbowl group from being able to establish momentum in their discussion.  (There’s always that one class where everything that’s worked before doesn’t work . . . )  In that case, I had to come up with an open chair blocker.  I used a stuffed animal lion that I happened to have lying around and the kids got a kick out of it.  You could always just pull the open chair out of the circle, too.  But if you don’t discuss this possibility ahead of time, you might have kids who think that’s unfair.

Solving problems with the fishbowl participants

In my experience, the observers are where your true stop class kind of problems are going to come from.  But that doesn’t mean that the fish group is necessarily going to knock your socks off with their discussion.  They might have little to say or they might talk over each other.  One way to try to ensure better conversations is to spread out the talkers and the less vocal (I always spend a lot of time making groups for fishbowls).  Keep in mind that if you are giving a grade, you might find some grade-motivated students who don’t usually like to talk will push themselves to do it more.  I also think it’s useful to have a pre-fishbowl discussion establishing the expectation that a balanced discussion is best and that dominating a discussion does not earn you the most points.  (I know I keep coming back to the pre-fishbowl discussion, but I think it’s key.)  Actually having kids practice what to say to invite others into the discussion and establishing that you value those kind of actions as well as more traditional comments helps, too.

Even if you have balanced talking, you might not be that impressed with what they’re saying. One of my biggest frustrations is that students share quotes and then do nothing with them. You can scaffold the fishbowl group by giving them a sheet where they write their own questions, choose quotes, etc.  One advantage to the worksheet is that you have another artifact to consider in grading should a student not say anything during his or her fishbowl. Other scaffolding might include a role play, feedback on their preparation sheet (either from you or a peer), sentence stems, or peer fish coaches.

Sometimes I think it’s valuable to not provide a ton of direction and scaffolding and to see where the kids take the discussion.  You might find yourself wanting to jump in and get them to think more deeply about the wording or consider an alternative interpretation of whatever you would do in a standard discussion.  But instead you’ll take notes.  Although it’s frustrating, I think those urges can tell us a lot about where our kids are at, what their ZPD is, and how we can meet them there.  So one way to think about a fishbowl is that it will give you the opportunity to step back and see what the kids do on their own.  In that way, a fishbowl is kind of like a mini day of silence, which I always find useful to my teaching.

Dealing with Absences

You will also want to consider what to do if a student misses a fishbowl for which they are receiving a grade.  If it’s early in the cycle, you can re-assign them to a different group, but if it’s the last fishbowl, it’s trickier.  Personally, I wouldn’t let them off the hook for fear that I would have a lot of missing fish in the future.  One thing I’ve done is a make-up writing assignment that has a specific audience (like a letter) so that they still have to practice adjusting to other’s opinions.

Hopefully this helped you think through possible fishbowl problems so that you feel confident using them in your classroom.  I wouldn’t want to do them every day, but I include them at least once or twice in every class that I teach.  You can also check out my post on everything that could go wrong with appointment clocks.

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