Teaching Strategy


Community Inquiry
Grade Level


Fishbowl is a strategy for organizing medium- to large-group discussions. Students are separated into an inner and outer circle. In the inner circle, or fishbowl, students have a discussion; students in the outer circle listen to the discussion and take notes.


After reading


Fishbowl is an engaging and student-centered strategy that builds comprehension of complex texts while developing group discussion skills. In the inner circle—or “fishbowl”—students practice responding to multiple viewpoints. Observations from students in the outer circle provide insight into what makes for effective small-group discussions. Research supports the use of fishbowls as a particularly effective way to engage students with a range of abilities and in multiple settings.


  1. Choose a central text. The text can be read independently before class or with the class in the Close and Critical Reading phase.
  2. Begin by selecting four or five students to join the fishbowl group. Only students in the fishbowl are allowed to talk.
  3. Instruct the outer circle to remain quiet, observe and take notes on the content and process of the inner circle’s discussion.
  4. The first few times, play the role of the facilitator yourself.  Once the process is familiar, select a student facilitator. The facilitator does not participate in the discussion, but poses questions along the way to prompt deeper discussion and to make sure everyone inside the fishbowl has a chance to talk. 
  5. Identify the focus of the discussion and provide text-dependent questions for students to answer during the fishbowl discussion.
  6. Allow the conversation to progress where students take it. Rotate students in and out of the fishbowl throughout the course of the discussion. Set up a procedure ahead of time so students know to expect this rotation. Allow the fishbowl discussion to continue for at least 15-20 minutes.
  7. After all students have rotated through the fishbowl, divide the class into small groups and invite students to debrief. Students can use their observations from the outer circle to highlight strengths of the discussion and make suggestions for ways to engage each other more meaningfully. These discussion starters can facilitate the conversations:
    • What did you observe during the discussion of the text?
    • What is one thing you heard that you agree with?
    • What is one thing you heard that you disagree with?
    • How did you feel while on the outside of the fishbowl?
    • How did you feel while on the inside of the fishbowl?
  8. Wrap up the process with a full class discussion about the discussion. Pose a final question and give everyone an opportunity to respond by turning and talking with a partner or doing a quick write: What is one thing you have learned from the fishbowl process about discussing texts?

English language learners

Fishbowl is appropriate for intermediate English language learners (level three or above). The strategy engages students in a low-stakes activity with high verbal communication structure. English language learners may need extended practice identifying the characteristics of meaningful text discussions. Adding these specific questions to the guiding questions will help scaffold their experience:
  • Observer question: What helped you understand the information that was being shared (non-verbals, contexts clues, etc.)?
  • Fishbowl questions: How did you feel knowing that peers were listening intently to what you were saying? What do you wish you could have said more clearly/what point do you wish you could have made?

Connection to anti-bias education

Fishbowl can be used to explore the ideas of membership, identity, belonging and shared experiences. The structure lends itself well to discussions of complex texts and to challenging topics of cross-cultural significance. By providing all students both a speaking and listening role and a stake in the discussion, fishbowl can help build an inclusive and supportive learning environment. The observation aspect of the activity allows students to identify appropriate ways to participate in discussions. If used on a consistent basis, fishbowl discussions can establish boundaries and norms critical to anti-bias communication.

Sample fishbowl guiding questions:

To the observers:

Was it difficult to not respond to the fishbowl students’ comments? Why or why not? If so, what kinds of comments did you want to respond to?

Did you hear anything from the fishbowl that surprised you?

What helped you understand the information that was being shared (non-verbal indicators, contexts clues, etc.)?

To the fishbowl students:

How did it feel to share your feelings about the text knowing that your peers were listening closely?

Do you usually have opportunities to share your perspectives on _______?

What do you wish you could have said more clearly/what point do you wish you could have made?