Using fishbowl discussions to encourage post-formal thinking

A teaching activity for encouraging post-formal thinking

By Ann McCloskey, MA, Landmark College

There is much discussion these days among educators on how to teach critical thinking skills. When working with sophomore-level college students, it is important to include opportunities for them to develop what developmental psychologists call “post-formal thinking.” This is thinking that involves the ability to consider different perspectives on an issue, develop an appreciation for opposing viewpoints, and take an interest in exploring new questions. An assignment I use to encourage this process is called the “fishbowl discussion.”

All students in the class arrive having read academic articles that depict opposing sides of a controversial topic related to course content. One example of a discussion topic in a developmental psychology class is whether or not adolescents are overscheduled in organized activities. Alternatively, in a course on personality, the topic may pertain to how much or how little we control our happiness.

In class, two students (chosen ahead) sit in the center of the classroom. Each student begins by representing the side of the controversy assigned to him or her. Then, a discussion proceeds. Ideally, each student considers and then moves toward understanding the opposing point of view. Before the exercise, the idea of understanding more than one viewpoint would have been stated as a goal of the exercise, as opposed to the idea of one person winning a debate (a more familiar process for many students).

Meanwhile, the rest of the students in the class sit in an outer circle, listening and writing notes in response to a few key questions (distributed in advance) related to how the inner-circle discussion is unfolding. One of these questions pertains to how their own classification (by gender, ethnicity, race, class, disability) may affect their views on a controversial topic; another question asks the outer-circle members to reflect on how the same classifications may affect the views of other students. Students also note main points discussed and their thoughts on what else could have been discussed.

Students in both the outer and inner circles should focus on their own as well as their peers’ views. Eventually, the outer-circle participants join the inner-circle participants to present some of what they thought about and noted while listening to the discussion. The exercise encourages careful listening to and consideration of alternative viewpoints, as well as the examination their own assumptions.

Research on cognitive development shows that most college freshmen see knowledge as absolute and obtained from authority figures. By the time students are seniors, they have typically moved to an understanding that ambiguity exists within knowledge. Developmental psychologists explain this transition as a product of a student’s need to make sense of the conflicting viewpoints they encounter. It is the student’s environment (i.e., assigned reading, classroom discussions) that provides the dissonance that leads to cognitive growth. As students emerge from adolescence into adulthood, they become more able to tolerate this sort of dissonance long enough to grapple with opposing viewpoints rather than seeking a definitive answer to a problem.

We educators need to provide situations that will challenge our students’ viewpoints and encourage them to tolerate, if not welcome, ambiguity in knowing. This is an important aspect of post-formal thinking, one that not all adults achieve developmentally. It seems there is no natural developmental progression to this sort of higher-level thinking in adulthood for everyone. Some achieve it, and some do not, much in the way that some adults can be judged as “wise,” while others never seem to achieve “wisdom” at any age.

Higher education is an ideal place for learning this important cognitive process that we call post-formal thinking. Students can learn to question their own ways of thinking and established assumptions. They can become open to a variety of viewpoints. We can encourage higher-level thinking and discourse among our students by providing learning opportunities where this sort of questioning is needed. The fishbowl discussion is an exercise I have found to be useful in this regard. While I typically use it with second-year students, it bears repeating with upper-level college students as developing post-formal thinking takes practice.

About the author

Ann McCloskeyAnn McCloskey has been teaching psychology in higher education since 1988. She spent 18 years teaching in an MA counseling psychology program at Antioch University New England, where she trained mental health counselors. Throughout that time, she concurrently worked as a licensed clinical mental health counselor at colleges, schools and in private practice. Since 2006, McCloskey has been teaching undergraduate psychology at Landmark College, a two-year school that serves students with learning differences.