Practica: Back-to-school with the fishbowl

As a kid allergic to fuzzy, furry pets, I was treated to the fascination of a tropical fish aquarium by my father, who loved watching what happened in there as much as much or even more than I did. It's the fishbowl image that came to mind when I discovered that this fall I would be treated to rather large classes at the University, where I will be lecturing, the “fish” to the onlookers, thus facing the challenge of launching interactive exercises that keep as many students awake as possible.

As a teaching strategy, I suspect that the fishbowl is old as ponds. I used it many years ago to explore the issue of trust in virtual teamwork, where in fact it is still relevant. If you don't know it, the fishbowl approach means taking a couple people or a small group, "the fish" and seating them facing each other in the middle, surrounded by the rest of the participants. The "fish" are assigned a discussion topic to engage in while others observe, reflect and raise questions.

Let me use the topic of trust as an example. Before lunch or break time I would pick out two relatively articulate and apparently diverse (age, gender, cultural background, etc. etc.) participants and asked them to volunteer to be the "fish". If they agreed, I gave each of them a slip of paper with the questions I would like them to address when we started the exercise. I cautioned them to think about the questions, but not discuss them with each other until the exercise began. The questions in this case were:

  • What tells you a person is trustworthy or not? What clues, signs do you look for?
  • What do you do to encourage others to trust you?
  • How do you recreate trust if it is broken?

When the group is back and the fishbowl is constructed, I asked the two, now seated in the middle, each of these questions one at a time, and allow each of them to explore it for a few minutes. Traditionally, the fishbowl observers participate by asking those in the bowl questions. My approach is a bit different. I announced to the rest of the group that this would be like a "wrestling tag team match", inviting anyone in the observer group who feels that she or he has something important to add or an experience to share, to come up, tap one of the "fish" on the shoulder and replace him or her in the chair and continue the discussion. This exchange and shifting participation continuea until the conversation dwindles. Then, we debrief, discussing how our differing cultures and environments (e.g., virtual vs. face-to-face) might create trust challenges as well as suggest ways to resolve them as we seek to form an effective team.

I now apply the fishbowl exercise to more specific intercultural learning topics, providing discussion starter information or mini-cases about how certain issues or practices are dealt with or carried out in different cultural contexts. (Using the SHARE cards from our diversophy® games gives me hundreds of items to choose from to provide topics relevant to my groups.) This approach allows me to ask for volunteers from the culture under discussion to face off with someone who has little or no experience with that culture to launch the discussion. I encourage them not only to describe attitudes and behaviors but illustrate them with stories and anecdotes wherever then can.

Working in this way with what can be at times delicate cultural issues, models and encourages the students to continue to share informally and personally on cultural topics of concern to them.



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