Fishbowl Seminars with Backchannels

April 4, 2014
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Teaching sounds a bit too much like ordering at Starbucks when you say it–a fishbowl seminar with Google+ backchannel–but that’s the strategy we looked at on Wednesday. Funky as it might sound, here’s what it’s all about.

Socratic Seminar: Students analyze complex texts. Your job: play Socrates. Ask questions of the circle of students that lead them through the text, looking with an increasingly critical eye for the details of the text and, ultimately, a greater understanding of its meaning as a whole.
Fishbowl: Inner circle speaks; outer circle listens. Large classes make large circles and, frequently, unbalanced seminar discussions. Fishbowls help correct those problems, while still allowing deeply analytical discussion.
Backchannel: The outer circle engages in the seminar discussion by sharing their own thoughts through social media. The teacher can post questions, or just ask students to respond to topics that arise in the inner circle. Use twitter, Edmodo, Facebook, Padlet, or scrumy. All of them provide a venue for the outer circle to stay involved.
The point of this strategy is to push students toward deeper thinking–not just comprehension, but analysis, application, and synthesis–and to wean them from their dependence on teachers to explicate a text. What I like most about the strategy is its versatility. It works in almost every subject area. Consider these strategies with:
  • A complex, real world problem in math
  • A panoramic photograph of a modern hotel interior
  • Sheet music for a concerto
  • A poem
  • An audio recording of a car engine, along with the customer’s complaint
  • Part of an historical document
  • Lab results
  • An infographic
  • A political cartoon
  • A painting
  • A battle map
Seminars don’t just happen. They take substantial preparation and practice. Explaining the text yourself is always much easier for the teacher, but the payoff in student learning from a good seminar is undeniable.
I look forward to helping you prepare your Socratic seminar, fishbowl, or backchannel. Let me know how I can help.