Under Discussion: Fishbowl

Keelsing 1In my last post, I wrote about getting the students to contribute to teacher-led discussions. But sometimes, the best way to get them talking is to structure the conversation. A structured conversation, in fact, can engage students in a lesson in ways that a teacher-led discussion cannot.

The other day, I watched a master 7th grade science teacher, Miss Kimberly Keesling, lead her class through a Fishbowl debate. Her objective was a universal lesson in critical thinking: Beware of loaded words and emotional responses. Ask questions. Do your own thinking.

She drew upon a well-known hoax from the 1990s in which scientific “evidence” was deliberately used to mislead the public.

Miss Keesling distributed facts sheets to the students—papers she’d prepared listing the pros and cons of banning a mysterious substance, dihydrogen monoxide—DMHO for short. The strikes against DMHO in the realm of health alone are pretty severe. It’s

  • Colorless, odorless, tasteless
  • Accidental inhalation can be deadly
  • May cause severe burns
  • Prolonged exposure to its solid form causes severe tissue damage
  • For those who have become dependent, DHMO withdrawal means certain death
  • Has been found in excised tumors of terminal cancer patients, but is not believed to be carcinogenic

Environmental issues are also serious:

  • Is also known as hydroxic acid, and is the major component of acid rain
  • Contributes to the “greenhouse effect”
  • Is found in almost every stream, lake, and reservoir in America
  • Has caused millions of dollars of property damage in the Midwest recently
  • Contributes to the erosion of our natural landscape
  • Accelerates corrosion and rusting of many metals
  • May cause electrical failures and decreased effectiveness of automobile brakes

On the other hand, DMHO is used

  • As an industrial solvent and coolant
  • To generate power
  • In the production of Styrofoam
  • As a fire retardant
  • In the distribution of pesticides
  • As an additive in certain “junk-foods” and other food products

Miss Keesling gave the students five minutes to ask questions, study the fact sheets, and write out talking points on one side or the other. Then she took the pulse of the class. Those in favor of banning DMHO went to one side of the room; those against banning it, to the other. The Undecideds sat in the middle. She explained to the students that they were going to have a debate about DMHO, so they had to use facts.Keesling 2

It took only a few minutes then to explain the rules of Fishbowl:

  1. Three people—volunteers, one from each group—would be at the front of the room, seated on a comfortable couch. (Usually, Fishbowl is done with two concentric circles—an inner circle and an outer circle—but the rules are malleable.) Using their notes and the fact sheets, the students would take turns presenting their point of view about DMHO.
  2. When a speaker finished, if another student wanted to support that point of view, he’d tap the speaker on the shoulder and the first speaker would sit down. In that way, only three people at a time were seated on the couch.
  3. The speakers stood up to present their arguments.

Middle schoolers love to talk, love to debate, and these students did so brilliantly. Their arguments for and against banning the mysterious substance were cogent and fact-filled. Some students were direct and succinct; others became quite animated. Within 15 minutes, just about everyone in the room had spoken. I heard impassioned and powerful statements and effective transitions such as these:

  • Although it is used to generate power…
  • It’s a risk: But life is about risk.
  • Bottom line: It kills people.

Sophisticated stuff for 7th graders. At the end, my colleague asked how many of the students had switched sides because of the arguments they heard. Some had.

Then she made the Big Reveal: DHMO is water. She broke the scientific words down into their roots and prefixes: di (2); hydrogen; mono (1); oxide. A few students caught on, clapped their hands to their foreheads: H20.

Why, she asked the students, had they come down on the side they had? All the claims and counterclaims are true—but they had been duped. Who had even asked what DMHO was before they began?  No one. What had swayed them? They had heard the facts, stacked on one side or the other as they were—all of them true, all of them convincing—and formed an opinion, often a very strong one. Why?

What followed were insightful responses that boiled down to this: The use of strong, emotional words such as kill, severe tissue damage, withdrawal, “greenhouse effect,” found in tumors… It was easy to be led to a conclusion.

And that was her point. Scientists have to investigate dispassionately. Scientists have to examine the facts. Scientists have to ask questions. They can’t be swayed by emotional language.

And it’s not just scientists. These students were quick to point out that television, politicians, advertising—they’re all guilty of using emotional language to influence their audiences. Everyone needs to be vigilant. Everyone needs to think before they jump to a conclusion about something they know nothing about.

The Fishbowl strategy proved to be superior to recitation and far better than teacher questioning for a lesson like this. Because it was experiential, because kids were out of their seats moving and talking, because they took ownership of the lesson, they were engaged in the activity and Miss Keesling was able to make her point.

Granted, this particular lesson was a set-up. But the kids were good-natured about it. They understood the message and understood the value of it being learned in this way. In fact, the lesson will stick far longer than a paragraph in a textbook or a lecture by the teacher. But the method—a Fishbowl debate—was the perfect vehicle in a powerful lesson orchestrated by this experienced science teacher. Point made.

Fishbowl works for straightforward discussions about all kinds of topics. It’s especially useful if students are invested in a topic and eager to contribute, but even shy students will express their opinion when they can choose when to tap someone on the shoulder, decide for themselves when to take an inner circle seat.

Want to know more? Here are three websites explaining Fishbowl, offering other ways of structuring a Fishbowl conversation.

https://www.facinghistory.org/for-educators/educator-resources/teaching-strategy/fishbowl  (Facing History and Ourselves) A straightforward explanation of how to set up a fishbowl discussion.

http://www.learner.org/workshops/tml/workshop3/teaching2.html (Annenberg Learner) A lengthier description with alternative ways of structuring the discussion.

http://www.edchange.org/multicultural/activities/fishbowl.html (Multicultural Pavilion) Another good explanation of the set-up for Fishbowl.