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The Fish Bowl

A teaching tool for large group reflection

This exercise is a wonderful way to facilitate small/intensive conversations within a large group that is shared equally among all participants. Both the speaking and listening roles are emphasized. The Fishbowl process engages participants in active listening, active communication and increased understanding of a variety of viewpoints. It is a method for respectful and equal communication. It helps participants understand different points of view, and provides them with a dynamic participatory experience of open discussion and dialogue. Allow for at least 20 minutes for this exercise - 40 minutes is a better timeframe for a deep discussion.

Arrange the classroom seats in concentric circles. The inner most circle is where the fish in the fishbowl get to communicate, the outside circle/circles represents the glass bowl of the fishbowl, where the observers sit. Inside the fishbowl is where all conversation takes place. Outside the inner circle is for observing and actively listening.

Dependent on the size of group, set up the inner circle with chairs for the participants. If there are five people as fish in the bowl, there should be seven seats. The idea is that five seats should always be occupied with two seats always empty. Once the conversation starts, anyone from the outside circle of observation, can stand up and occupy one of the two empty seats, inside the fish bowl. Because five seats should be occupied with two seats empty, at all times, one of the participants already in the fishbowl will have to relinquish his/her seat, and take a seat in the outside circle of observation. Please note: the inner circle must always have 5 seats occupied and two seats empty. If this framework is not maintained, action stops in the fishbowl until the seats are filled or vacated. In this way, the conversation is shared among many different people, moving in and out of participation and observation roles.

Wrapping it up

After the fishbowl method is used, allow for one final process before the session ends. Bringing all participants together, get a sense of how this communication technique worked for everyone.

Here Are a Few Questions that Can Help an Educator Guide the Discussion:

  • Was it easy to move from speaker to observer, from fish to bowl?
  • Did you hear or say anything that was surprising?
  • What is one thing you have learned from this experience?