Keeping up with the conversation: Fishbowls

The fourth strategy of a five-part post about discussion strategies.

These five strategies will help students to improve small-group communication while also allowing them to synthesize important course content in large-group discussions.

It is appropriate and fair to see setting up discussions as one of the most difficult instructional strategies in our lessons. The easiest way to do it is to just pose questions to students. The downfall, as I’m sure many of us have experienced, is that we tend to have frequent high-flyers in the discussion, which lets many others fly under the radar. This post offers the first of four different discussion strategies that can be used to (1) hold students accountable for their learning, (2) improve small group communication and culture, (3) integrate different types of learning styles, and (4) promote student ownership of their learning. This series’s fifth and final post will be about keeping track of the discussion and appropriately evaluating discussions.

The four different types of discussions I will share include: (1) Jigsaw, (2) Fishbowl, (3) Speed Dating, and (4) Affinity Mapping. Beyond explaining each type of discussion, I offer (a) what you (and sometimes students) need to do to prepare, (b) what students need to do as part of the discussion – their engagement with the lesson, and (c) what type of reflection could be used to conclude the discussion.

Fishbowl Discussions

What is it?

A fishbowl discussion is best used in medium- or large-group settings and challenges students to (1) comprehend complex content, (2) utilize higher-order thinking skills, (3) interact with diverse and differing viewpoints, and (4) focus on active listening. This strategy is an effective way to engage students with a range of abilities in multiple settings.

This type of discussion will provide for culture building, but I do not recommend having one at the beginning of the semester. This type of discussion requires a sense of familiarity and respect.

A fishbowl will have students in two spaces, much like concentric circle discussions.


Preparation for fishbowl discussions requires both academic and physical preparation. The room must be shifted to have desks/tables facing one another in a smaller inner circle and a larger circle facing inward. Unlike a concentric circle space, fishbowl discussions require students to all face inward, with those in the outer circle looking inward (toward students’ backs), much like a fishbowl.

Students will prepare for class by reading/interacting with whatever content or text you’ve assigned. I also asked them to interrogate the material by curating questions used in our discussion. These could include examples like these:

  • THINK BIG: Jot down 3-4 broad, open-ended questions that emerge from the WHOLE text. These questions should be able to respond to connections, themes, and throughways. They should also represent opportunities for different interpretations.
  • HONING IN: Revisit the text(s) you were assigned. Write down 3-4 more specific questions for each text; however, try and remain as open-ended as possible. These questions should focus on ideas that may support, emerge from, contend with, etc., the big ideas from your first questions.
  • GET CONNECTING: Now think about our essential question: [remind students what it is]. Identify 2 open-ended questions that will help the group think about this idea based on the reading you were assigned. Think about how your questions connect to our EQ and what your questions do to serve a larger purpose.

Beyond physical space, the instructor remains relatively outside of the discussion. I prepare a room map (diagram of the space) to give students points. I also have a document with students’ names already listed (an Excel spreadsheet is excellent) so that I can type in feedback to refine and send to students afterward. However, much of my preparation is about space and time.

  • For a single-day discussion, the conversation is fluid, with students moving between the two circles. You won’t require yourself to overthink time if you hold the discussion to a single day. Instead, the time is more about students managing the conversation and helping one another to get involved.
  • I break two-day discussions into (a) time for the inner circle’s discussion and (b) time for the outer circle’s response. I traditionally think of it as a 2:1 ratio for time.

The core conversation you need to have with yourself is about how long your discussion will take. If you want only one class meeting, the fishbowl format will require preparing students to tag in and out of the inner circle. If you are taking two class meetings, then the inner and outer groups will switch in the second class meeting.

I also prepare students by establishing the following rules:

  1. Be respectful of questions and time.
  2. Be clear and concise
  3. Listening is a priority
  4. Be open to feedback and criticism


Participating in a fishbowl discussion can be fun, but more importantly, it is also an opportunity to simulate real-world conversations among students. Once they’ve stepped away from the discussion, most students enjoy the student-centered and student-owned experience. It has the potential to be stressful to get involved, especially if it is restricted to a singular class session. Still, students also will recognize the need to help one another contribute and get involved.

  1. TO START: Students will sit in the inner circle (if they are starting as part of the discussion) or the outer circle (if they are actively listening and will later join the conversation).
    • Students should be prepared with their questions and the texts in front of them. If you are hosting this in one session, minimizing what students have in front of them is essential, given the likelihood of movement in and out of the inner and outer circles. I ask for nothing else to be in front of students so that they can focus on the conversation and active listening.
  2. QUESTION: I remind students of the goals of the discussion and welcome a student to open the floor by posing their first question. That student is now responsible for leading the discussion and calling on other students in the circle when they respond. My students have often made it a rule not to raise their hands to make it feel more like a conversation; however, they often resort to it to maintain a speaking order. As a note, the person asking the question doesn’t traditionally then contribute to the answer. Instead, they will take notes on how others responded, thus helping them clarify the answer to their posed question.
    • The outer circle should be actively taking notes on answers and finding places where they feel confident to contribute or where they feel someone needs to clarify more. Notetakers should make sure they have references and evidence from exact people so they can later address them personally.
  3. SLOWING DOWN?: When the question seems stale or the answers redundant, a different student will offer up a new question, and the discussion progresses.
    • SINGLE DAY: If you are doing this discussion in a single session, then students from the outer circle will get up and tag someone who has contributed much to the discussion. That outer-circle student will then have an opportunity to join the conversation, and the person they tagged out will go to the outside circle to listen and take notes. The reason for tagging out someone who has contributed a lot is to ensure that all students have opportunities to contribute to the discussion.
    • TWO DAY: There is no moving inward and outward. Instead, the students on the outside will have time to ask the inner group questions at the end of the allotted time.
  4. OBSERVERS: If you are doing a two-day fish bowl (which I prefer), then the outer circle will have time to ask the inner circle questions, provide commentary, extend thoughts, and push the boundaries of the conversation. I will often assign different texts to the groups; therefore, the outer circle can seek clarification because they would not have read what the inner circle did. It provides a teaching-like environment.


At the end of the discussion (no matter the length), I ask students to write (or film) a reflection on the experience. I pose the following questions and prompts to guide their thinking and encourage them to go beyond them:

  • How would you describe your participation in the discussion?
  • Discuss how you used evidence from the texts to respond to questions and comments. What would you do differently if you could participate in a fishbowl discussion again?
  • Select a question you wrote. Based on the discussion, respond to the question. Did the discussion help answer it? How did the discussion contribute to, further, or complicate your answer to this question?
  • Reflect on the culture of the discussion. How did you feel the class worked together to respond to the texts for the discussion?
  • What advice would you give someone eager to participate in a conversation like this? What advice would you give someone is shyer about how to participate in a conversation like this?

4 responses to “Keeping up with the conversation: Fishbowls”

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