Fish Bowl

The next time you are going to have a discussion in your class take a video of it.  The first time you play it back only listen to the audio.  Who is doing the talking?  Who is asking the questions?  Who is reflecting?  I know when I did this many years ago the answer was simple…it was me.  What I was calling a discussion was really just me asking the kids questions and them giving me answers.  Now watch the video again with the video on and sound off.  Who seems interested?  Who is engaged?  Who is leaning forward and eager?  Who is hiding? How many faces can be seen by the average person in the room?   During that eye opening viewing years ago I realized that it was me that was interested, me facing the kids, and the kids facing me.  And 100% of the time when a kid was talking they were either not looking at a single other kid, they were talking to the back of another kid’s head, and the kids that were listening were only looking at the back of the head of the kid who was talking because the kid talking was looking at me (that makes sense in my head).

Just think about that for a second.  If you have a discussion while in rows, you are automatically setting up the class to be talking to the back of heads or listening to the back of heads.  You are automatically setting up the class to focus on you and have the discussion be teacher powered, or at least filtered through you. That set-up removes the ability of students to read non-verbal cues which are many times more important than the words.  After thinking about this in my own class, I set about devising a system in which I could remove my self from the conversation and get the kids to face one another and have a real conversation not filtered through me.  A conversation…a dialog…in which they could explore ideas with more than sound bites, explore ideas in a way in which they didn’t have to fight for attention because they knew they would be able to follow-up on thoughts. I devised an activity that we called a “Gravity Discussion.”  One day on the internet I bumped into a teacher inSan Francisco  calling it a “Fish Bowl,” and quickly realized that “my idea” was being done with many variations across the country under a different name (and there went the book deal).

There are many different ways of doing a “Fish Bowl,” here is how we do it. The first thing we do is go over the rules.  I am not big on “rules,” but order in a fish bowl is important.  There must be some civility.  It is not a debate or argument.  Respect must be maintained at all times.  We go over body language, tone of voice, and how to ask a question or make a statement.  It is very important that the first one goes exactly by the rules.   Sometimes I will stop the dialog and give an example of how to do something so that it promotes dialog and does not end it such as re-wording statement, changing tone or voice, or simply not pointing a finger at someone while talking.  The rules we use have been ripped off so many people along the way that I can no longer give credit to the folks we  ”borrowed” them from.  After a couple fish bowls I am usually no longer needed, the kids self correct, and I become an equal in the room.

Below is a video that further explains the process and includes an example from the first weeks of school at the end.  Hopefully I will remember to video our next one and will add it so that you can see an example of a more polished fishbowl dialogue.


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