What Is A Fishbowl Discussion?


A fishbowl discussion is an alternative to a traditional Socratic seminar. It works better than a traditional Socratic seminar in larger groups, giving people time out of discussion and then time in discussion. This allows for reflection before stating and defending your beliefs.

Only four or five people are actively discussing at any one time; the others listen to what is being said, form opinions and then, if they are confident, express them to the entire group.

It can be used in classrooms of any size, allowing for greater flexibility in teaching methods. A Socratic seminar is best with 15 students or less. A fishbowl discussion can have 100 or more pupils participating at the same time.

In general – with some variations – fishbowl discussions have up to five people discussing a text while the rest of the class pays attention to their arguments. In some variations, people are allowed to “switch in” and join the discussion. In other variants, a select few are chosen each class to be the discussers.

What it has in common with Socratic seminars is the belief in an absence of a universal truth contained in a text. Rather, it focuses on a multiplicity of potential and ever-changing (in all temporal, socio-economic, gender and racial terms) truths, without a fixed point of reference.

People can bring their experiences to the table and metatextualize the text, and talk about intertextual relationships, subtext, and extratextual influences.

In addition, like Socratic seminars, the teacher is not seen as the leader of the discussion. He or she is simply there to ask one or more questions and keep the students on track. The learning element of a fishbowl discussion comes from the students themselves.

In this way, both Socratic seminars and fishbowl discussions fly in the face of the traditional teacher/student relationship, the concept of correct answers, the method of rote learning, and to a greater or lesser degree, canon.

This creates controversy in the academic community, because of a reduction in the teacher’s role, a reduced reliance on testing, and the admittance of multicultural factors that can provide non-traditional interpretations of the text.

There is also criticism that by putting students in a fishbowl situation, more extroverted students will have a larger say in how the discussion goes, while more introverted students will hold back. (Proponents of fishbowl discussions argue that this already happens in a traditional lecture class.)

The end goal of a fishbowl discussion is to get students to learn how to learn, see the perspectives of others, and find unusual solutions to text interpretation.

To some degree, they (and Socratic seminars) are seen as somewhat of a Marxist alternative to the traditional capitalistic lecture course.

Four- Or Five-Seat Open Fishbowl Discussions

In a four- or five-seat open discussion, the seating is circular around an open space. The space is the fishbowl.

Five or six chairs are then placed in the fishbowl. Four or five students are then selected to sit in those chairs, and one chair is left empty.

The students will have been assigned a text to read before the discussion begins. The teacher will then ask a question about the text, and the four or five students in the fishbowl will begin discussion it. The students in the circular seating listen and take notes.

At any time, one of them may walk into the fishbowl and sit in the empty seat. When this happens, one of the existing people in the fishbowl must leave and enter the circular seating. Discussion continues with the new discusser in place.

This repeats itself throughout the discussion, with students sitting in and moving one person continually out of the fishbowl.

Under these circumstances, it is assumed that the majority of the students will end up in the fishbowl at some point.

Two-Seat Open Fishbowl Discussions

A two-seat open fishbowl works much like a four- or five-seat open fishbowl. The difference is that there are only two chairs, and no empty chair.

Two students are selected to enter the fishbowl and begin discussing the teacher’s question about the text. When there is a break in the conversation, a member of the audience can come up, tap one of the people out, and take his or her place.

This has the advantage of having the conversation focused on two students at a time, which is easier to follow. The disadvantage is that with only two views at any one time being expressed, it is easier for discussions to turn into arguments or debates rather then full-on conversations.

Closed Fishbowl Discussions

In a closed fishbowl discussion, again four or five seats are placed in the fishbowl. That number of students are then randomly selected to sit in those seats. There is no empty seat.

The teacher brings up his question about the text, and they begin to discuss it. This goes on for a set period of time (generally five, 10 or 15 minutes). Then that group is dismissed, and another group is randomly selected to discuss the text. This process repeats itself until the class is over.

The advantage of this type of discussion is that it forces students who are less vociferous into the fishbowl. It eliminates the dominance that may come from open fishbowl discussions.

The disadvantage is that conversations can be cut short, and when progress is being made it may come to a halt.

It also limits the amount of questions that can be asked. While in an open fishbowl there can be two to five questions, for reasons of fairness it is generally accepted practice that only one question is asked – the rotating students each need a chance to address it from their own metatextual point of view.

Advantages Of Fishbowl Discussions

Fishbowl discussions are far more progressive than lectures led by a teacher. In a teacher-led discussion, there is an underlying assumption that he or she has more knowledge and experience than his or her students. It is his job to bring that wisdom to them, for them to take notes, and then repeat this information at exam time.

From a moral and ethical standpoint, it should be obvious that this method of teaching creates stasis is learning. There is no push to move forward; simply to learn what is “right” and what is “wrong.”

Yet text itself changes with time, history and experience. When Huckleberry Finn was first released, calling one of the characters “Ni**er Jim” was an accepted part of society and culture, which was generally run by and for wealthy white men. They had no experience in the systemic racism that led to the creation of that character.

Today’s students, however, are not only (or even predominantly) straight white men. Women, gender-fluid people, and minorities have entered the scholastic halls. And over time, the way we look at race, the word “ni**er,” and overall societal attitudes have changed considerably.

This change is historic (in terms of the way time alters experience) and cultural (the way non-straight white males view things). This leads to a different interpretation of the character “Ni**er Jim.”

Under a lecture arrangement, however, there is no room for this new multiplicity of interpretations. The character represents today what it has represented for a century. There is no progress in the interpretation.

This is a simplified example, but illustrates the point. Text is fluid. It not only means different things over time, but it also means different things to different people. Everyone brings their own metatext to the classroom – and real learning occurs when those metatexts interact.

By separating the teacher from a leadership position in learning and instead putting those reins in the hands of students, greater truths can be learned and appreciated.

This contributes to a far richer and more rewarding educational experience.

Disadvantages Of A Fishbowl Discussion

While there are advantages to a fishbowl discussion, there are disadvantages as well.

By making students switch in and out of the fishbowl, greater weight will be placed in the hands of more extroverted students. Women and people of color may feel too intimidated to sit in the fishbowl – and therefore, their views will carry less weight in the overall discussion.

White male students may try to press their privilege if given the chance. When under the gaze of an entire large class of students, it should seem obvious that people in a position where they have always been the center of attention may assume the right to that center of attention.

In short – racist and sexist issues can skew the overall conversation.

Another complaint is, what is the teacher doing during the discussion? Is he or she actively directing it? If so, why? Is he is not directing it, why not? The answers to these questions may reveal the selective bias of the teacher’s point of view.

Finally, not all subjects are suited for fishbowl discussion. Math and science (it can be argued) require a certain amount of rote learning that is best dispatched from “on high.”

Overall, the choice between Socratic seminars, fishbowl discussions, and traditional teaching has to be a decision rooted in an understanding of classroom dynamics and the subject matter being discussed.

cc Michael Purser 2017





Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *