Using Fishbowls to Talk Politics


McKibben Fishbowl 300x300“Especially with politics, as soon as someone starts saying something that you don’t agree with, in your mind you [immediately] think, ‘OK, how can I tell them they’re wrong?’”

—Kevin Zupin, social studies teacher

Working with the Choices Program at Brown University, a team of social studies teachers in Indiana found that “fishbowls” are an effective strategy for keeping the peace during controversial political discussions. The format encourages students to “listen to hear and not [to] respond” and rewards them for sharing multiple viewpoints, explains Kevin Zupin, a team member and teacher at Winamac Community High School.

Zupin regularly uses fishbowls in his U.S. history and government classes with juniors and seniors. In “The Elephant (and Donkey) in the Room,” from the October issue of Education Update, he explains how they work. Here’s an expanded outtake:

After researching the issues and preparing materials to reference during the activity, a five to seven students sit in an inner circle (the fishbowl) deliberating an essential question while the rest of the class observes in a wider circle around them. [A question might be, “By weighing the trade-offs between the candidates and their stances on the issues, how would you cast your vote?”] Following a 12 to 15 minute discussion, the students in the outer circle share their observations. Then the groups switch positions.

According to Zupin, students can “get very passionate and sometimes upset” during an exchange, fishbowls look nothing like a presidential debate where candidates argue, often “interrupting and cutting each other off.” Teachers may be tempted to step in and mediate, but the discussion should be “turned over to the students.” Set the guidelines and let the students share their viewpoints and deliberate without interruption.

Fishbowl discussions rarely devolve into verbal spars because students know they are being graded on their participation. Zupin uses a “Deliberative Dialogue Rubric” developed by the Center for the Study of Global Change at Indiana University to assess students in four areas:

  • Ability to support comments (referencing resources discussed in class to validate statements)
  • Questioning skills (asking other students thoughtful questions)
  • Understanding of [the] topic (showing higher-order thinking and multiple perspectives)
  • Mindfulness (being respectful of others)

By the time a fishbowl is over, students have immediate feedback about how they performed in each of those areas. [Click here for a step-by-step guide to setting up a classroom deliberation.]

Zupin has found fishbowls to be so effective he uses them for his government course’s final assessment. “The idea is that learning is happening from sharing and discussing,” he says, “rather than memorizing and putting it on a test.”


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