Whole class discussions like socratic seminars and fishbowl discussions are an essential part of our U.S. and AP U.S. courses, as are small group discussions and pair-shares.
It is important that young people learn to articulate their opinions clearly with substantiating examples and in a respectful way, and that they become confident about speaking in groups. In order to ensure quality discussions, we have established norms which are supported with clearly posted discussion sentence starters and handouts. In order to ensure equity and to learn from many different perspectives, we strive to establish discussions in which each member of the class participates.
Structuring class discussions also serves a pedagogical purpose for the social and emotional development of individual learners. In the fish-bowl, inner / outer circle, discussions, for example, half of the class observes not only the content but also the dynamics of the other half's conversation. The observations questions (see below) are not assigned randomly but selected for individual students depending on their developmental needs: a student who is likely to dominate the discussion, for instance, will be assigned the question about "who seemed reluctant to participate and why?" whereas another student might be assigned the question "who used someone else's name when posing a question?" and so forth. Because they are astute observers, many of the elements the students observe become present in their discussion when it is their turn to move to the inner circle. The second discussion will often feature much more use of names, polite disagreement, and posing of questions - to name just a few of the discussion elements below.
Fishbowl Discussion Observation Questions:
- 1. How many times did each person speak?
- 2. Which students started the conversation?
- 3. How often does the group get off topic?
- 4. How many people make reference to the focus question?
- 5. Who speaks most – girls or boys?
- 6. Which comments moved the conversation forward – got people to react?
- 7. What body language did you see? Gestures.
- 8. How do people disagree? Politely?
- 9. Does anyone seem nervous or unwilling to participate?
- 10. Do any students encourage other students?