A fishbowl, though round, is not an open-circle process. It is instead a functional inversion in which, rather than information flowing from the periphery to be assembled into a drama or gestalt at the center, a drama or gestalt at the center is absorbed by the periphery and perhaps dissected into information. This is an ancient and basic way to stage the theater of learning, used not only for Sophocles’ plays but for athletic competitions which too are instructions in the interplay of character, virtue and design; and in the games Lecture and Debate, through which it dominates higher education.
We have met one fishbowl process earlier, in the game of Patty-Cake. Here the audience was detached and objective; the drama was pre-scripted and precisely directed; and its dissection into information was methodical and exhaustive, led first by an independent gamekeeper and then by the audience. Each of these conditions may be varied. For example, in 1969 some two dozen of us were running an education fair for a week. Women’s consciousness was rising sharply then, and by the third day our eight women were ready to ditch the whole thing, but called a crisis meeting of the staff instead.
As the men sat in a fishbowl, the women at its center formed an open circle of their own and began to testify to their perceptions of oppression in the male-dominated scheme of our work—our ways of dealing with decision-making, glory, and gruntwork; and the feelings these engendered. The men listened for an hour and a half, bound as much by the women’s insistence as by their own decency; and when the women's whole was expressed asked the women to talk another round, focusing on what they wanted. It was not the kind of situation in which any immediate resolution was possible; yet the process was incomplete, as everyone was bursting with feelings and questions. So without changing seats, we inverted the fishbowl: the men went a long round testifying in turn, primarily to each other, offering their feelings about what had been said about them personally, and their thoughts about the collective problem. Then we disbanded, or rather went off in ones and twos to struggle further. We are still struggling with these problems, in and out of education.
Fishbowl processes may be adapted to many contexts. Their gamekeeping can be collective or administered. The audiences need not be as active as in these examples. For reasons I’ll speak of shortly, it is best to use them in alteration with other sorts of processes which involve people more centrally. Fishbowls are perhaps most useful when they are unique events rather than the norm; or when, if repeated, everyone in time rotates through the center. Otherwise, they tend to induce a kind of “learner passivity” in the audience, which is seen at its worst in a series of games of Lecture, however entertaining they may be.