Home' Teacher : November 2010 Contents LOOKING INTO PRACTICE 17
I was battling with my Years 8 and 9 gen-
eral science students: just trying to get them
to listen to each other for more than a few
minutes was a struggle, even though many
were interested in the topic.
I was also battling with my large Year
11 biology class where so many of the stu-
dents were disengaged because they weren't
continuing with the subject the following
year. In both general science and biology I'd
tried small group discussions. Some groups
managed to engage in good discussion from
time to time, but there were still groups or
individuals who chose not to participate or
who used the time for social chatting.
How could I address this problem? I
decided it was time to try something new.
After completing some work with my
Year 11s comparing human digestion with
the digestive systems of other mammals, I
posed two questions, and asked my students
to discuss, in pairs, their responses to each
question. Then, with nervous anticipation, I
asked the Year 11s to form a circle with one
member of each pair seated and the other
standing behind her partner.
'What are we doing?' many of them asked.
I explained the rules of the 'fishbowl.'
The inner circle would be discussing the
first question. One student would speak
at a time, and each student needed to have
a turn before speakers could contribute
Those in the outer circle were not allowed
to speak, but were to keep note of the most
suitable and interesting responses. Once the
group decided that they were finished dis-
cussing the question and a response could
be agreed upon, then the pairs would swap
places to discuss the second question.
It was time to start.
'Can I speak first?' asked Lauren.
'Don't look at me,' I replied.
The 'discussion' proceeded with each stu-
dent reading their prepared responses. To
my dismay, the discussion didn't flow at all.
No one really listened. They just waited anx-
iously until it was their turn to have their go.
The outer-circle participants were quiet,
except for Melinda who, with hand over
mouth and a loud, 'But. . ,' then reminded
herself, 'Oops, I forgot. I can't speak.'
I sighed inwardly. This was the first time
Melinda had been prepared to participate
in a biology discussion, yet I'd set up a rule
that didn't allow her to contribute.
All too quickly, the comments dried up
and the inside circle just looked at each other.
'Can we stop now?' they asked, collectively.
We swapped inner and outer circles.
There wasn't much difference. The dis-
cussion didn't flow in the way I'd antici-
pated. I did remind the second group that
they needed to listen to each other and that
one comment should follow the next with
some relevance. Also, they didn't have to
agree with whatever was said.
'The question is too hard,' said Marta.
'We're finished now,' said several students.
This was a disaster! Why was I doing
this? I felt sick.
What was I thinking?
I was first introduced to the fishbowl dis-
cussion technique in 2002 with a group of
science teachers. I was asked to sit in a cir-
cle with a partner behind me, to discuss the
process of digestion of cocoa pops. By 2008
I still hadn't tried this form of discussion in
my classroom. Why not?
When I first experienced this discussion
technique in 2002 I focused on saying some-
thing as quickly as possible so that I could
sit back without the pressure of having to
contribute. I felt frustrated when the dis-
cussion seemed to take the 'wrong' direc-
tion. Outside the circle I felt frustrated if I
knew the 'answer' and no one else did, but
I couldn't say anything.
As a participant in the Monash University
Science Teaching and Learning (STAL) pro-
fessional development program, sponsored
by Melbourne's Catholic Education Office,
I again encountered the fishbowl discussion
technique. Again, it was about the digestion
of cocoa pops. Again, I felt nothing but frus-
tration. I couldn't control the direction of the
discussion, and said as much in the follow-
up debrief. Then, a memorable moment,
one of the facilitators said, 'Well Julie, that
sounds like a great case study for you.' That
got me thinking. Do science teachers value
discussion? If so, how was I valuing it?
It might seem strange to have had two bad
encounters with a teaching approach and
then to try implementing it in the classroom,
but I had been challenged to consider how
the fishbowl might be valuable as a discus-
sion tool, and I love a challenge.
In truth, I saw a place for this technique
that might address the needs of the learn-
ers I was working with. I didn't like it so
much, but why should that stop me from
trying it with my students? I figured it might
suit some of their learning styles better than
other approaches I was using.
A discussion is more than the teacher pre-
senting some information and then asking
questions of students. If the discussion is to
be a useful learning experience, the students
must see a reason to actively participate,
and to do so there must be a clear purpose
for what is being discussed and why.
When I thought about it, that was the
issue. Yes, I valued discussion and I wanted
to engage more students in discussion, but I
needed to take a risk and find a way to pro-
mote purposeful discussion in my classes.
I was pleased to see Melinda paying atten-
tion and keen to contribute. Other students
who rarely contribute to any discussion
had actually said something. There was
some engagement by all students even if
the response was totally different to what I
expected. So would I do it again?
It had taken a long time to run the discus-
sion, and many students left the class com-
plaining that I hadn't told them the answer.
'Don't do that again,' they pleaded.
I didn't, for a while, but then it was get-
ting closer to the STAL case-writing day. I
still wanted to improve classroom partici-
pation in discussion and the students had a
test coming up.
I decided to try the fishbowl tech-
nique again, this time with the focus on
Links Archive October 2010 December 2010 Navigation Previous Page Next Page