Fishbowl Discussion – Taking Class Discussions to the Next Level


Let’s face it; many students do not come into the classroom proficient in having a productive conversation. There are many reasons for this, not the least of which are media that often value the loudest, most quotable sound bite over the thoughtful listener, but because good discussion is so crucial to what I seek to accomplish in my classroom as well as what I hope for my students to accomplish in life, I had to devise a way to scaffold these skills. The fishbowl technique was the perfect solution. It gave my reticent students a forum to share their ideas, my garrulous students practice in the fine art of listening, and everybody a language to discuss how to be a better communicator.  Give it a try – it’s had a huge impact on my classroom. Here’s how I do it:

THE DAY BEFORE: Preparing for the Fishbowl Discussion

  1. Q.W. (Quickwrite) – Students write for 5 minutes on the following prompt and then discuss their responses.  “What is the difference between a discussion and a debate?  What is the purpose of each?”
  2. I explain that the majority of examples of discourse that we see in the media are debate – with the purpose of winning and getting your own point of view heard.  We have fewer examples of and practice in discussion, and this is a skill that we will need to succeed in many areas of our lives – especially those involving relationships, whether in the workplace, our families and friends.
  3. Discuss with the class: If the purpose of a discussion is to better understand the topic we are talking about and the people we are having a discussion with, what are the best ways to make this happen?  There are a number of ways you could make this happen: I have included a list of ready made guidelines for discussion that I use when time is an issue, or you could pose the above question to the class and brainstorm a list of guidelines for discussion created by the class.  This is a little messier and time consuming, but students will be more invested in it.
  4. Now you’re ready for the fishbowl discussion.  Explain the procedure to the students and reassure them that it will make more sense once they’ve done it a few times.  Be sure to remind them of the purpose of discussion and let them know that the whole point of doing this is to improve their discussion skills, so be prepared for some awkwardness and imperfection.  You yourself should also be prepared for this as well as complaints about the quality of your topics.  Just continue to reassure students that we’re all working together to improve our discussion skills and once we have some practice in, they’ll be invited to put in their own discussion topics.  There are several variations on this activity, but below is the initial basic procedure.


Set up classroom chairs/desks in a circle around the room.  This is obviously harder with large classes (I’ve done it with a class of 38 students,) but worthwhile.  Make sure there are enough chairs for all the students in the outer circle.  In the center of the large circle, set up a smaller circle of 4 or 5 chairs.  Less seems to be too intimidating for the students and more leads to one or more students not speaking.


Have students sit in the outer circle.  I usually let them choose their own seats for a couple of reasons.  First of all, even especially talkative classes tend to focus once we’ve gone over the guidelines and practiced this a few times and the structure of the discussion means that you will be participating in discussion with people you haven’t chosen to sit next to.

Give each of the students a letter.  The number of letters you give out depend upon the size of your class.  Since I usually like a group of five in the middle, I divide the number of my class by five and give out the number of letters resulting.  (Example:  If you had a class of 30, you would divide by 5, resulting in the need to give out 6 letters – A,B,C,D,E and F.) Tell them to write this letter at the top of the paper they’ll be writing today.

Make sure students all have a copy of the discussion guidelines on their desks.  I give credit for having these with them and have extra copies for those who lose them.

Go over the basic sequence of events with students:

1. A topic/prompt will be posed (on the board is better, but aloud also works). All students, who will be sitting in the outside circle for this portion, will write on the prompt for a short time (3 minutes works well for me – you can shorten this, but too much longer tends to be counter productive)  During this time, the students are trying to write as much as they can think of about the prompt/topic.  Opinions are a good place to start, but then they should try to come up with reasons/examples to support their opinions because what they’re trying to do is come up with discussion material.

2. After the 3 minutes is up, students put down their pen and a letter is called. This works better if it’s random – I use popsicle sticks labeled with each of the letters in a coffee cup.  Those students whose letter is called go to the inner circle of chairs.

  • The inner circle’s job is to discuss the topic for 3 minutes (can go longer if you want – I usually don’t go past 5 minutes to keep it lively) following the discussion guidelines as closely as possible.
  • The outer circle’s job is to observe and take notes on what discussion guidelines the inner group follows well and what guidelines they need to work on. Emphasize that no matter how much you may want to contribute to the discussion, you must remain silent if you are in the outer circle. This can be hard for the kids (and you!)

3. After the discussion is over, the students who were having the discussion rejoin their classmates in the outer circle and the whole class writes for a few minutes on what the discussion group did well and what they could improve on, using the language from the discussion guidelines. It is important that you have students use the discussion guidelines to phrase their critique, because they otherwise have a tendency to use vague language such as “They did really well.” or “Their discussion was interesting.” Using the discussion guidelines forces students to focus on the specific actions that lead to an effective discussion. We then talk for just a few minutes on what the students observed in the discussion.

4. The cycle repeats with another discussion question related to the text. During the last 10 minutes of class, take time to reflect on the discussions as a whole and, as a class, decide on 2 specific skills from the list that you will focus on improving in the next discussion.

Practice Makes Perfect – Troubleshooting Fishbowl

As with any new technique, practice makes perfect; don’t expect your fishbowl discussions to be scintillating the first time (although they occasionally are.) Some final tips for success:

  • Do your best to choose writing prompts that students can form opinions on and when students complain that the prompts are boring, tell them that the conversation is more important than the prompt – it’s up to them to make it interesting.
  • Prepare students for times when no one will be talking. I tell them that, although the silence can feel awkward, it’s just a time when everybody is thinking and when someone comes up with an idea for something to say, they will speak up. Resist the urge to fill the silence yourself. Five minutes can feel like forever, but some of the best conversations arise out of these silences.
  • Leave plenty of time for the reflection. The real growth comes from the discussions about the discussions.

Students Love It

The fishbowl format creates a structure that allows students to practice listening and speaking in a respectful, effective way. It not only gives students the opportunity to express their opinions and ideas, but also the time to reflect on how to improve their communication skills. And even better, students love it! Be prepared for them to ask to do it again and again.