Fishbowl Discussion

Support students to be both contributors and listeners in a group conversation
276 teachers like this strategy
Students Engaging in Fishbowl Discussion

About This Strategy

In a Fishbowl discussion, students are seated in two concentric circles. The students who are seated in the inner circle (or inside the "fishbowl") actively participate in a discussion by asking questions and sharing their opinions. The students who are seated in the outer circle listen carefully and actively to the ideas presented by their peers in the inner circle. At the end of an allotted period of time, the students in each circle switch roles, so that they practice being both contributors and listeners in a group discussion. This structure supports students to develop a criteria for effective collaboration and communication, and then use that criteria to evaluate the quality of their peers' contributions and their own contributions to class discussions. This strategy is a good step toward a whole class student discussion such as a Socratic seminar, but it takes less preparation time to implement.

Implementation Steps

20 minutes
  1. Select a topic for students to discuss, and have students prepare for the discussion by annotating a text, forming opinions or making claims, and gathering evidence to support those claims.  
  2. Arrange the seats in your classroom into two concentric circles.

  3. Develop norms and rules for the discussion by asking students, "What does a student-led discussion look like?" and "What should a student-led discussion sound like?" prior to engaging in the discussion.

  4. Engage in Fishbowl discussion. Teachers can provide students who are in the fishbowl with question starters (see resource section below to support the discussion). Teachers can provide an outer circle checklist (see resource section below) or rubric to students in the outer circle to evaluate the fishbowl.

  5. Debrief/ Provide Feedback. After engaging in the discussion, ask students to reflect on the discussion in these ways:

    • Have students evaluate their performance as a listener and as a contributor to the discussion, setting goals for how they can improve for next time.

    • Have students evaluate the discussion as a whole, and provide suggestions for how to improve the discussion in the future.

    • To learn more about supporting students to discuss challenging texts and topics, explore the Having Hard Conversations with Students strategy in the BetterLesson Lab.

Promoting Active Listening and Higher-Order Questioning

While some students engage in discussion during the Fishbowl, the students in the outer circle can listen, ask questions in writing, or use a checklist to reflect on the discussion.  After both sides have engaged in discussion, students can engage in a whole class discussion where they respond to questions from their peers using a protocol such as Glows and Grows.

Implementation Steps:

  1. Instruct students in the outer circle to ask questions in writing of their peers as they observe the discussion. If necessary, provide a list of Depth of Knowledge Question Stems for students to consult as they write their questions.  Also, students could use an Outer circle reflection checklist to evaluate the discussion. See the resource section below for examples of both items. 
  2. At the end of the fishbowl, engage in a whole-class discussion where students can ask each other the questions that they developed while listening to their peers engaging in the Fishbowl discussion.

Fishbowl to Develop Arguments

A Fishbowl discussion makes for an excellent pre-writing activity, often unearthing questions or ideas that students can explore more deeply in an independent assignment.

Implementation Steps:

  1. Before and after the Fishbowl, provide time for students to gather evidence-based thoughts on the seminar topic. They can use a Claim and Evidence T Chart (see resource below) to gather their thoughts.
  2. Following the seminar, students can use their notes to develop an argumentative response to a prompt.

Fishbowl for Reflection and Peer Feedback

While in the outer circle, students can observe their peers engaging in the fishbowl discussion and offer specific feedback for the group or for each individual student in the group discussion.

Implementation Steps:

  1. Before the Fishbowl discussion, assign students in the outer circle a partner to observe in the Fishbowl. Ask them to provide feedback on their partner's contributions to the discussion. In addition, students in the outer circle can provide feedback on the group using a Fishbowl reflection rubric.
  2. After the Fishbowl discussion, have students share feedback with their partner and with the whole group on the discussion. Then have students complete a reflection of the fishbowl discussion using a protocol. See the "Glows and Grows Peer Feedback Protocol" strategy in the Betterlesson Lab for an example of a peer feedback protocol. 

EL Modification

For EL students, this strategy provides an excellent opportunity for students to practice their English speaking skills. To acquire language fluency, students need opportunities to produce real, purposeful language and to direct the course of conversations and arguments. This strategy could be further modified for EL students by modeling for students how to ask and answer discussion questions, providing the students with the ability to prepare responses to questions with a partner or receive feedback on their responses to a question from a partner before engaging in the fishbowl, or providing sample question or answer stems to guide their discussion contributions.

Special Education Modification

To support students with learning disabilities that impact their verbal communication, teachers can give students the questions ahead of time and allow them to journal their thoughts before convening the circle. Providing sentence stems for their responses is another way to support students who struggle with verbal communication.

Tech Tools


  • Screencastify makes it easy to record your own video lesson leveraging resources you have organized in your web browser (slide deck, websites, Google Docs, etc…). Pointing, highlighting and even writing over content is possible while displaying your video and audio as well.

  • Screencastify can support this strategy by providing you with an easy way to record the discussion with your laptop by using the webcam function. The video can be used later on as a tool to engage students in post seminar reflections. Teachers can also use the video to help them assess the quality of the discussion, from a group or individual standpoint.

Research Base

In developing this strategy, the following resources included below were consulted.