fish in an aquarium

The Fishbowl – A Discussion Within a Discussion

Running a discussion when students have access to technology can be a challenge because many teachers feel they have to control what happens in both spaces. Using tech, you can actually have students hold two discussions – one out loud in the room and one in the chat space.

Google Hangouts is open and available to Elkhart staff and students. If you’ve not used it before, check out our overview post.

The concept is simple – two groups of people discussing the same thing in different media. One group of students is in the “fishbowl” having a discussion verbally. You can run this as a debate, a persuasive conversation, or a brainstorming session. The second group sits around the perimeter listening and commenting in the Hangout on oral discussion.

As the teacher, you get to play double-duty. You can listen to the conversation happening in the bowl as well as monitor the conversation in the Hangout. You can also help bridge the two discussions, throwing ideas and follow-up questions into the chat and at the same time, bring up items from the chat with the center group.

The great thing about this is that often, the two discussions head in opposite, but related, directions. The outer group has the benefit of being able to look up materials to help support their views as they argue the topic. The inner group gets practice in defending their position based on previous research.

At the end, you can grab a copy of the Hangout and post the transcript. The center group can explore the text in depth as they work to reflect on the discussion.

Some things to consider:

  • Your questions have to be open ended. Discussions are no fun if everyone agrees. Try having an open-ended discussion in which there is no one “right” answer. I also have found that controversial questions lead to good discussion. Some I’ve heard of: “Was Kierkegaard really an existentialist?,” “What is the most significant development of the 20th century?,” “How did the end of WWII change European and Asian history?”
  • Be okay with arguments and disagreements. Students don’t always need to agree to find meaning in discussion. Obviously, keep it civil, but if minds aren’t made up, that’s fine.
  • Pre-assign groups (if necessary). This is not a come-in-and-start sort of discussion. There needs to be some preparation by students. Some teachers have half the students students blog the information and the other half reads the blogs and then becomes the inner discussion group. This works well with particular concepts, but might not always be necessary.
  • Have follow-up questions ready. Not all discussion will reach an adequate depth when they start. Be ready to have some probing follow-up questions to push students to deeper levels. Be willing to play devil’s advocate to get them thinking about topics form a different perspective. Questions or statements that catch them off guard are always good, too.
  • Pick an outside discussion medium before starting. I already mentioned we have access to Hangouts. You can set one up and invite students using their Elkhart email addresses. There are some other options, like Today’s Meet which allows you to download a PDF of the chat transcript after you’re done. You can also set a custom URL for Today’s Meet. Remember, there is a difference between the instructional strategy and the technology you use to carry that strategy out.

To take this idea a step further, consider recording the chat. You can record with a phone in the middle of the room or with a Chrome app. Again, the actual tool doesn’t matter as much as the strategy and purpose for recording in the first place.


The featured image is a flickr photo by aspecticide shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-ND) license

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