The concept of a fish bowl or Socratic seminar is not new. Just Google it and see how many hits come up. This learning method has been used for years by numerous teachers. However, this doesn’t mean that everyone knows about it. I have known about it for a while now, probably two or three years, but today was the first time I have ever used it in the classroom, and now that I have, I don’t know why I waited so long.
Instead of using the typical Socratic seminar format, I decided to try the fish bowl technique that was posted several years ago on the Learning and Laptops blog. Basically, there are a group of four or five students sitting at the center of the room facing one another in a circle. Then, the rest of the students sit in a circle surrounding this inner circle. The students in middle have a verbal conversation, and the students on the peripheral have a digital conversation on the computers. The more I read about the Socratic seminar, the more I think that the fish bowl is a totally different experience, but it is still effective. For more on how to set up the fish bowl, click here and head over to Learning and Laptops.
What I want to talk about is my observations on how this worked with my classes. First of all, the students I did this with are Seniors. That may or may not mean that they are prepared for this higher level thinking activity. Though they tend to have a higher level of thinking, I think this could be done with 8th graders just as effectively. In some respects, it might be more effective.
One of the biggest challenges that we had today was hearing the conversation in the middle of the room. I know that there was a pretty good discussion among the students, but often times, I had no idea what they were saying. I think a microphone would help here greatly and add a great dimension to the activity.
The other problem with the inner circle was keeping the discussion going. Some of this might have been due to my questions. I now know that to get them started, I really need a discussion point with depth. Maybe I need to let the students come up with the discussion topics. That might also help.
Where the inner circle struggled with their discussion, the outer circle discussion flourished on the computers. There were some great insights gained in these chat sessions, and most of the students participated in the discussion. I think this is where the real learning took place in the classroom today. It makes me think that maybe next time, we all need to get on the computer for a chat and forget the inner circle thing altogether.
Thinking on this, though, I still think there were some mental gains from the inner circle. The students did talk, out loud, in front of the class. This is a big thing for most of these students. They had a real face to face discussion, something that doesn’t always happen for high school students.
Now I am heading into controversial territory. Is the verbal dialogue better than the digital dialogue? Which one will have the greater impact in the long run?
Regardless the answer, I will be doing the activity again in one form or another. The students seemed to enjoy themselves, and they told me that it helped them to better understand the topic of the discussion.