At the Montessori College the students actively take part in discussions about educational development. Students take part in Fishbowl discussions and provide valuable feedback about various educational subjects. Take a look at the school’s approach.
According to the head of the school, Berni Drop, it is natural for students to contribute ideas about their educational process and environment.” For as long as I have been in education, which is 40 years, I have been talking about educational development with students. The students really appreciate that. It makes them feel heard and seen. As a result they show more ownership and take more responsibility regarding their education. And it connects seamlessly with the vision of Montessori  education at our school: the relationship is the focal point, students are given the space to experiment and as a result they learn how to work independently. The added value of Fishbowl discussions was clear to me from the start.”
The Montessori College organises Fishbowl discussions. Depending on the topic, student of a certain year and/or level or a cross section of the student body takes part. There is an inner circle of five to seven students and one teacher, who can ask the students questions. The outer circle consists of a varying number of teachers. They are there to listen and cannot enter into a discussion with the students. According to teacher and coach, Marga Smeets, that is what makes this is a good platform to question students about an educational topic: “If teachers and students experience things differently, it means that the communication is flawed. A Fishbowl discussion can expose this problem. By giving your undivided attention and by not immediately passing judgment, you can obtain a lot of information.”
A good preparation
Marga moderates the Fishbowl discussions together with her colleague Sonja Walters. An important aspect is the preparation of both the students and the teachers. Marga: “One of us discusses the topic and the conditions of the discussion with the students. For example, the teachers are not allowed to enter into a discussion and they are only allowed to ask open questions. And students are free to express how they really think and feel, but they have to think about how they formulate their thoughts. We discuss this based on an expectations model. This makes students feel more confident in expressing their thoughts.” The other discussion leader prepares the teachers in the same way.
“Teachers are not allowed to enter into a discussion and are only allowed to ask open questions.”
The role of the moderator
Marga and Sonja play the role of moderator during Fishbowl discussions. Marga explains: “One of us is the discussion leader and makes sure that everyone adheres to the conditions of the discussion. For example, when a teacher asks a closed or leading question or starts discussing with a student, a time-out is given. One of the teachers present keeps the minutes and presents a summary during or after the discussion to check if the feedback has been documented properly.
At the end of the Fishbowl discussion the moderator supervises the feedback discussion. These types of question are then discussed: What was it like? What have the teachers learned from this? And how will it affect the students?
A pleasant atmosphere
Sterre Doeleman (upper class student) finds it important to discuss education and has already taken part in three Fishbowl discussions: “At first it was a bit awkward. It rarely happens that teachers ask you about what they can do better. It is good that they cannot go into a discussion. That makes you feel safe and it creates a pleasant atmosphere during the Fishbowl discussion. The teachers are allowed to pursue a line of questioning. When you say that you disagree with something, they can ask you to provide a possible solution. But sometimes you just cannot provide an answer and that can make a Fishbowl discussion very difficult at times.”
One of the Fishbowl discussion Sterre took part in was about scrum sessions during science class: “They experimented with scrum sessions as a new method in my class. This caused much upheaval. Most of the students thought that the scrum sessions were nonsense and useless. A Fishbowl discussion was organised to find a solution. Solutions were provided, but it still did not work. In the end they decided to discontinue scrum sessions for that year. The science teachers actually complied with the wish of the students.”
The perspective of the students is very important according to Berni: “I follow the Fishbowl discussions closely, because I consider them very valuable. The strength lies in the work format. It protects both students and teachers and is focused on deceleration, research and dialogue. The students feel that they are heard, seen and taken seriously. A Fishbowl discussion can be used as an evaluative tool and it is a good method to receive input about your educational design. Schools cannot start early enough with student participation. Because of the way Fishbowl discussions are set up, many schools can benefit from them.”
“The set-up protects both students and teachers and is focused on deceleration, research and dialogue.”
- Only use Fishbowl discussions if you are truly interested in the opinion of students, do not use them as a gimmick.
- You need good moderators: people who understand the methodology, are respected by their colleagues and who can guarantee that teachers will adhere to the conditions.
- Report back to the students what has been done with their feedback and what will happen next.
- Be willing to trust in the fact that students can do much more if they are given responsibility.
- Properly prepare both students and teachers for a Fishbowl discussion.
- Make it clear to teachers that they can pursue a line of questioning.
- Make sure that teachers do not enter into discussion with students.
 Montessori education is a concept that follows the vision of Maria Montessori: “Teach me how to do it myself.” Students learn how to make their own decisions, to work independently and in groups and how to study with complete motivation. Students from three different school years are put in the same class so they can help each other.
Try it yourself with this handout! >> Handout-fishbowl-EN