Sunday, September 15, 2013

Fostering Critical Thinking with Fishbowl Discussions

In my experience, teenagers tend to struggle with writing for two major reasons: 

1) They're not used to thinking critically.
2) They don't know how to put their thoughts into words.

I have no qualms about saying that I wholeheartedly blame our testing culture.  We're teaching the youth of our nation to think in terms of A, B, C, or D-- not to analyze, rationalize, criticize, or evaluate.  However, lest this blog turn into one giant anti-testing rantfest, I'd prefer to focus on what I can do with what I have.  What I have is a room full of kids who need to learn to think critically so that they can not only write well, but also be productive in the real world.  What I can do is model critical thinking for them and let them practice in a safe environment.

I've heard of fishbowl discussions for years, but this year is the first time I've tried them.  Wow!  I'm holding at least one a week in most of my classes, and they're changing the way my classroom works.  The concept is simple:

1. Choose 3-4 students to be "fish"-- to sit in the front of the room and serve as the leaders of the discussion.

2. Ask discussion questions, one at a time, of the fish.  Allow them to hash out their responses as a panel, and then open the discussion to the rest of the class.

My kids are so responsive to this format!  Our discussions are lively and so insightful.  It's amazing what kids can come up with when we let them think.  I have to say, at first they all seemed to feel a need to address me for their responses, rather than the class.  To get them discussing together, I moved to the back of the room, spoke only when necessary, and occasionally redirected kids who were turning around to face me.  I'm also more than happy to spend some time on a (related) tangent, because I want to allow discussions to flow freely and kids to express their thoughts fully before we rest a topic.

I chose my first "fish" based on their outgoing personalities.  To get the figurative ball rolling, I wanted kids who would have no problem expressing themselves.  After the initial discussion, though, I usually choose kids who were notably quiet during the last discussion.  This way, I make sure that they're accountable for participation.  (I also take a participation grade.)

Fishbowl discussions are revolutionizing my kids' writing, because they're eliminating the problems I listed first-- they are forced to think critically, and talking through their thoughts helps them to formulate the words they need to write.

What tricks do you use to get kids discussing?
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