Fishbowl Discussion

Support students to be both contributors and listeners in a group conversation
397 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 Discussion For Distance Learning

Monica Washington
BetterLesson Instructional Coach

Discussions with peers allows students to examine their own perspectives and evaluate evidence used to make claims. Fishbowl discussions during distance learning allow students to maintain connections to their peers while continuing to build the skills of listening, speaking, and examining evidence.

Implementation steps:

  1. Explain to students that a Fishbowl discussion is a great way to practice examining evidence, listening, and speaking.

  2. Before your scheduled synchronous instructional session, divide your roster of students into inner circle and outer circle groups.

  3. Post your discussion prompt and any relevant reading material on the platform that your school uses. (Google Classroom is an example.)

  4. Let students know which circle they are assigned to.

  5. Ask students to read and annotate the text and make note of any questions they have before joining the live session. 

  6. Provide students with the question stems and peer evaluation tools that are provided in the original Fishbowl strategy.

  7. If you are using a tool such as Zoom, remind students of features such as the “hand raise” and the mute button. Also, remind them about the importance of active listening.

  8. Begin by posing the discussion question again during the video conference. Have the inner circle engage in discussion using discussion stems as well as their annotated texts.

    • A fishbowl discussion is also possible during asynchronous distance learning. To do so, choose a tech tool for students to have an asynchronous discussion about the prompt such as Flipgrid. Then, if using Flipgrid, record a brief video in which you pose a discussion prompt for the inner circle to start their discussion. Then allow each student to record a video of their response to the discussion prompt and respond to each other's responses within flipgrid. 

  9. Remind the outer circle that they are to listen and mark their evaluation tools.

  10. Allow the groups to switch roles and repeat steps 8 and 9.

  11. Following the discussion, ask students to reflect on the experiences of being a speaker and a listener.  

  12. Students could also complete written reflections about what they learned through the 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. 

Special Education Modification

Nedra MassenburgDEMO
Special Education Specialist

Fishbowl discussions support students with disabilities in using and applying active listening skills to gain and process information.  This then allows a structured method to build skills for them to be active participants in all class discussions. 

Participation in fishbowl discussions requires executive functioning skills (task initiation, prioritization, working memory, etc.), emotional regulation/impulse control, and verbal expression skills.  In order to support students with disabilities who have difficulty in these areas consider these modifications:


  1. For students with disabilities that affect their verbal expression, provide the discussion questions ahead of time and allow them to write out their thoughts before starting the fishbowl discussion.  During the discussion repeatedly ask them to refer to what they have written as their pre-work to use as a resource.

  2. Use or modify handouts/graphic organizers (see the resources below) that will visually remind them of what specifically they are actively listening for in discussions and what active participation looks like. See the modified fishbowl handout in the resource section below.

  3. Use visual reminders in the classroom of what active listening looks like.  As an example, a visual of learners tracking the teacher or students with their bodies facing each other in discussion could be used.

  4. To support students with learning disabilities that impact their processing speed or short-term memory, intervene as a teacher to ensure students have the opportunity to process what has been said and speak at their own pace, including pausing the discussion to summarize key points and invite learners to respond.  Pace these interventions less frequently as amount of practice and feedback in active listening students have.

  5. To support students with learning disabilities that impact their emotional regulation and/or impulse control, use visual and verbal time reminders during the discussion to help students fully flesh out their thoughts during discussions.  As an example a teacher may say, “We have three minutes left in this portion of our fishbowl discussion. I need everyone to scan their written discussion points to ensure all three pieces of evidence you listed have been shared during the discussion already.  If not, be prepared to share your evidence in the last two minutes of the discussion.” 

  6. Model appropriate disagreement norms for fishbowl discussions.  As an example, a teacher may say “ Why is disagreement important in discussions?  When we disagree about something someone shares during discussion, what sentence starters can we use to share our disagreement?  How should the volume and tone of our voice sound?  How should our body language look?”


EL Modification

Shannon Coyle
English Learner Specialist

Fishbowl discussions present an excellent opportunity to practice their speaking and listening skills. These types of discussions are a platform for English Learners to show what they know in a setting where, while very risky, also involves a greater amount of scaffolding and preparation on the part of all students than everyday class discussions. Fishbowl discussions give teachers the opportunity to hear from English Learners who may be reluctant speakers and to assess listening skills which are important but infrequently formally assessed. 

Fishbowl discussions require English learners to listen, process, and develop spoken responses quickly. Fishbowl discussions also ask learners to reflect on themselves and others which require the use of specific vocabulary and sentence structure that may be new to them. In order to support English Learners consider these modifications:


  1. Provide an opportunity for learners to fully prepare at least one contribution to the discussion in advance. English learners at all levels will benefit from practicing these prepared contributions. Provide sentence stems and vocabulary banks during preparation. Consider having learners with prepared contributions start off the discussion, or plan in advance with the learners a cue, like a nod, to let them know it’s a good time to contribute. 

  2. Use partner work in advance of the fishbowl discussion to allow English learners to practice with responses to other learners. Learners at upper proficiency levels may interact well with all discussion stems provided to the whole class. For learners at lower proficiency levels, choose a smaller number of stems to provide, focusing on those that can be used in the widest variety of situations. Consider practicing discussion stems chorally with the whole class. Consider partnering with your English learners’ specialist to stage a mock fishbowl discussion in ESL class to give learners a preview of the entire procedure.  See the "Practical Strategies to Improve Academic Discussions in Mixed Ability Secondary Content Area Classrooms" resource in the resource section below. 
  3. Have English learners at lower proficiency levels in the outer circle highlight discussion stems and/or DOK questions that they hear. Give learners at higher proficiency levels a target number of notes or questions to generate, using the DOK question stems. 

  4. Use English language acquisition rubrics to evaluate English learners speaking accurately and fairly. Consider having English learners use a familiar English language acquisition rubric to self-evaluate their performance as well. Partner with your English learners’ specialist to determine a familiar rubric or use a WIDA rubric (See resource below).

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.