Innovative Learning: 5 Lessons on Fish Bowls

Topics: Associations

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At the Wisconsin Society of Association Executive Education Conference in September, we stepped outside the traditional learning box and tried an innovative learning experience called a fish bowl presentation.

Here’s how a fish bowl works:

Four or five chairs make up the fish bowl in an inner circle, which is surrounded by more circles of attendees. At our event, I moderated the fish bowl participants as we discussed ASAE’s excellent book, “7 Measures of Success: What Remarkable Associations Do That Others Don’t.

As a tool for innovative learning, the fish bowl was intriguing. While I felt the session offered value, only one of our speakers (the 7 Measures chairman) had a wide understanding of the topic. The other speakers were more focused on a specific measure.  Thus, getting an active and sustained dialog was tough. Fortunately, I had a few prepared questions, winged it for others and got the audience involved with some questions.

If you want to bring the fish bowl format to your organization, here are my 5 lessons learned:

  1. Pick four or five participants who know each other and may already have engaged in some conversations.
  2. While you don’t want experts to all have the same perspective, make sure they have a fairly wide understanding of the topic.
  3. Have some meaty questions prepared – 5 to 6 at least – and at least a couple questions that will draw out different views and might even spark a real debate.
  4. You want the conversation to be natural and spontaneous, so I wouldn’t recommend over-prepping the participants. But you might spark more conversations if you give them some key questions and background before you start the event.
  5. The fish bowl is all about letting the audience feel like they’re a part of the conversations and blurs the line between speakers and the audience. Our fish bowl chairs were on a platform – I’d recommend having everyone on the same plane.

Overall I applaud WSAE and this group of speakers for trying something new to create an atmosphere for education. I think these innovations are key to keeping our face-to-face meetings relevant in the coming years.

Has your organization used a fish bowl or something similar?  What was your experience?

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October 3rd, 2010Simon Willison says:

I attended a fishbowl session at a BarCamp and it worked a bit differently from what you describe. There were four seats in the center, but only three of them were allowed to be occupied at any one time. Any of the other people in the room could sit down in that fourth chair if they wanted to join the discussion, and one of the three people already seated would then have to leave their chair of their own accord. It worked amazingly well – about half of the people in the room spent at least some time in the chairs, and there were no problems at all with people not wanting to leave their chair. The topic being debated was a controversial one, but the quality of the discussion remained extremely high.

Twitter: simonw


October 3rd, 2010David says:


I believe what you experienced is an “open” Fish Bowl. Done a few different ways but generally at least one chair is left open for audience membes to join the conversation, then return to their seats. I suspect, as in your case, this would be an effective way to bring several views together on a controversial topic.

Thanks for sharing!!

Twitter: Djmcknight


October 4th, 2010Adrian Segar says:

Another way to do an open fishbowl is with a different chair set-up; the audience sits in a horseshoe-shaped set of seats, with the 3-5 participation chairs set in a line at the mouth of the horseshoe.

The advantages of this setup are that everyone can see each others faces, and it’s easier for audience members to get to and from their chairs.

You can also have a facilitator in one of the chairs who helps to shape the flow of conversation when necessary. This is a format I’ve used for facilitated group discussions for many years.
Adrian Segar recently posted..The cost of hybrid events

Twitter: ASegar

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