Fishbowl Activity

Wes Mantooth

One activity I’m intrigued by but have never tried is the fishbowl conversation format. There are a number of options, but the basic idea is that a small group has a conversation in an inner circle while a larger outer group silently observes the conversation. Students rotate through the inner and outer circles until everyone has had a chance to experience both roles. Later, the class debriefs on what they observed in both roles on both the content of the discussion and the group process.

If done well, I believe this activity could help to create more equitable participation in discussion and sensitize individuals to their own role in creating equitable participation. I can certainly imagine that I would be more mindful of my own role in a discussion if I was aware that others were observing qualities such as the order of participants, the type of participation, and the duration of participation.

Here are some specific ideas on running a fishbowl that I gathered from several resources:

Size: The number of people in the inner and outer circles can vary. One suggestion is to create multiple fishbowls within one class: 4 outer + 2 inner, 6 outer + 3 inner, etc. These smaller bowls may enable more participation and alleviate the stress some may feel about being observed by large groups.

“Open fishbowl”: In this format, four chairs are placed in the inner circle, but one is always left empty: “In an open fishbowl, any member of the audience can, at any time, occupy the empty chair and join the fishbowl. When this happens, an existing member of the fishbowl must voluntarily leave the fishbowl and free a chair” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fishbowl_(conversation)). Another source (https://bethkanter.org/fishbowl) suggests the following process for organically rotating conversation participants:

  • After 15 minutes other people can join the conversation
  • If all chairs are filled, simply tap one of the participants on the shoulder and they give you their seat
  • Fish can choose to leave whenever they want
  • Fish should talk to each other, not the people on the edge

The moderator: Another suggestion is to have someone moderate the inner-circle discussion. The organization Learning for Justice  gives instructors the following recommendation: “The first few times, play the role of the facilitator yourself.  Once the process is familiar, select a student facilitator. The facilitator does not participate in the discussion, but poses questions along the way to prompt deeper discussion and to make sure everyone inside the fishbowl has a chance to talk.”

Debriefing: This recommendation also comes from Learning for Justice:

“After all students have rotated through the fishbowl, divide the class into small groups and invite students to debrief. Students can use their observations from the outer circle to highlight strengths of the discussion and make suggestions for ways to engage each other more meaningfully. These discussion starters can facilitate the conversations:

  • What did you observe during the discussion of the text?
  • What is one thing you heard that you agree with?
  • What is one thing you heard that you disagree with?
  • How did you feel while on the outside of the fishbowl?
  • How did you feel while on the inside of the fishbowl?”

To be most effective, this fishbowl activity should be preceded by students reading about how various aspects of identity (and individual personality) may influence conversation styles. Students should also reflect on their own tendencies and be intentional about pushing themselves to step up or step back.

Of course, another crucial aspect of this activity would be choosing compelling discussion topics. I haven’t thought that far ahead, but I am sure this conversation format could be used to discuss a wide range of materials: hypothetical scenarios, students’ lived experiences, non-fiction essays or videos, fictional work, and more. We might also watch and evaluate videos of group panel discussions.

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Fishbowl Activity by Wes Mantooth is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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