Fishbowls for training

In a fishbowl activity, a group of learners is selected to discuss a topic while the remaining learners observe, take notes, and later reflect upon the fishbowl discussion.  In an open fishbowl, observers can become participants, swapping places with those within the fishbowl. In a closed fishbowl, observers can’t change their roles. Fishbowls can be relatively homogeneous; e.g., fishbowl participants may be from a single team ( regulatory affairs, marketing, business leaders, etc) or can be heterogeneous (including fishbowl members from cross-functional teams).

Applications for fishbowls in training

Fishbowl activities are often used in education but they can have a useful role in training as well. For example, fishbowl activities can:

  • Allow trainees to learn about the perspectives of different departments within an organization
  • Present viewpoints of a panel of experts
  • Present viewpoints of a focus group evaluating a product or service
  • Present viewpoints of business leaders to enhance understanding of critical company issues
  • Allow learners to observe and comment on working relationships within a team
  • Allow learners to create and observe sales force scenarios

Fishbowl activities aren’t necessarily discussion activities but can be any activity that learners can observe, either synchronously, asynchronously or by some blended method. For example, observers might watch members of a team implement a procedure or  simulate a role-playing scenario.

Ground rules for effective fishbowls

Observers shouldn’t “check out” during a fishbowl activity. To encourage more active learning:

  • Learners may be allowed to swap places with fishbowl participants
  • Learners should take  part in a discussion or debriefing of the fishbowl discussion
  • A learner may be asked to listen to a particular fishbowl speaker to observe  the effectiveness of his or her interactions. As a group, learners would share their observations.

Ground rules for facilitators

Facilitators should:

  • Make sure discussants know what they’re expected to talk about
  • Mediate the fishbowl to make sure the discussion doesn’t turn into long dialogues by any one speaker
  • Exercise crowd control, keeping observers motivated but respectful of those in the fishbowl
  • Be prepared to introduce and summarize the fishbowl discussion
  • Be prepared to facilitate discussion by observers at the end of a fishbowl activity

Fishbowl activities can be particularly useful for involving larger groups of learners in training activities, while keeping discussion manageable.

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