Samaon circle discussion

My Favorite Class Discussion Strategy: The 4 Chair Fishbowl

class discussion Apr 12, 2022

One of the best ways for students to develop communication skills, build confidence, as well as learn and retain content is through thoughtful class discussion. From simple turn-and-talk to Socratic Circles, there are many great discussion formats you can use in the classroom to get students to share ideas and learn from each other. One of my favorite discussion strategies is the 4 Chair Fishbowl.

The 4 Chair Fishbowl is a fast-paced strategy designed to facilitate large group discussion and allow participants to share and listen to each other’s points of view. It’s especially helpful for conflict resolution or to discuss a controversial topic, but can really be used for any discussion topic.

To hold a 4 Chair Fishbowl, place 2-4 chairs in the middle of your classroom and have the entire class form a circle around them. The class will have a discussion, but students can only speak if they are sitting in one of the four chairs in the middle. Everyone outside of the chairs must listen. If a student wants to join the discussion, they can tap a student’s shoulder sitting in a chair, and as soon as that student is finished speaking, they must vacate the chair and let in the newcomer. The discussion continues, but its participants are constantly being refreshed.

Therefore, the discussion is really not about those sitting in the chairs, but for the entire group involved. The room is silent except for the students in the middle of the circle, and the discussion can move with the rhythm of students revolving in and out.

Every time I do a 4 Chair Fishbowl, I see students wriggle in their silent impatience to get into one of the chairs and share their thoughts, engaging in the content of the discussion by listening more than talking. Students control the pace and direction of the discussion, while the teacher stands on the outside facilitating only when necessary.

The 4 Chair Fishbowl can also be used as an assessment of student learning. For instance, if the class was doing a 4 Chair Fishbowl, the teacher can choose to observe a couple students while they interact in the discussion. Each time the selected students enter the circle, the teacher makes notes on how they contribute, noting strengths and room for growth. These notes can then be shared with the student to discuss what they are doing well and what can be improved the next time they discuss in class.

Next time you have a class discussion, put some chairs in the middle of the room and try a 4 Chair Fishbowl.

Here's some of my favorite tools for leading strong class discussion and collaboration.

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