The Fishbowl Strategy and Its Variations

Decorative: An actual fishbowl (as for goldfish) with five small human figures sitting in a circle in the middle of it


"Fishbowls" (post; doc) introduces the fishbowl active-learning strategy as well how to use it, common variations, and both advantages and disadvantages of this approach.

A. What Is It?

A fishbowl ...

  • Is "a discussion format that promote[s] participation from all the individuals"
  • "[A]llows  everyone to contribute and to observe"
  • Facilitates "discuss[ion] [of] controversial topics"
  • "[I]s a good alternative to the traditional debate"

B. How Does It Work?

"The fishbowl has a small group of chairs in an inner circle and one or multiple circles of chairs surrounding the inner circle."

  • "The inner chairs are occupied by the contributors and the outer chairs are occupied by the observers."
  • "There is a moderator (usually the instructor/facilitator) who introduces the topic for discussion and begins and ends the session."
  • "When the session has concluded, the moderator will recap the discussion.

C. Open and Closed Fishbowls

1. The Open Fishbowl 

"In the open fishbowl, one seat in the inner circle is left vacant." 

  • "At any time during the discussion, an observer can enter the inner circle and in turn, one of the contributors must voluntarily leave the inner circle."
  • "Participants will frequently enter and exit the inner circle until the discussion concludes."
Visual of open-fishbowl variant with moderator and one open seat included in the center and observers in the outer circle

2. The Closed Fishbowl

"In the closed fishbowl, all seats in the inner circle are occupied."

  • "When time runs out, the contributors vacate the inner circle and observers fill those seats."
  • "This continues until everyone has had their opportunity in the inner circle."
An image of a standard fishbowl with participants in a circle in the center and observers in a circle around them

D. Variations

1. The Feedback Fishbowl

  • "The inner circle discusses a topic for short period of time."
  • "When the time is up, the inner circle turns around in their chairs to face the observers who give them feedback."
  • "The inner circle turn back around again and the feedback."
  • "When the time is up, the participants from the inner and outer circle switch places and repeat the procedure."

2. The Homogeneous Fishbowl

  • "The fishbowl is comprised of individuals who share the same opinion."
  • "The idea is to gain new perspectives and understanding of the subject."

3. The Heterogeneous Fishbowl

  • "If there is more than one side to a topic of discussion, one person from each perspective sits in the inner circle."

4. Multiple Fishbowls

  • "For large groups, more than one fishbowl can take place at the same time."
  • "When time has run out, one or two members from each fishbowl will form a new fishbowl."
  • "The views from each group will be discussed."
  • "When this discussion is completed, everyone returns to their original fishbowl for further discussion."

E. Advantages and Disadvantages

1. Advantages

  • "Everyone has an equal opportunity to participate."
  • "Each participant can have their say without being interrupted."
  • "The contributors can freely state their opinion on the subject."
  • "It enables the student to become a better listener."

2. Disadvantages

  • "Observers could get edgy just sitting and listening."
  • Observers may have "[t]oo much of an urge ... to interrupt."
  • "Some participants may feel awkward about opening up, speaking their mind."
  • "Some participants might worry about repercussions from their comments."
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