With 40% of the population identifying as shy, it should be no shock that some students would struggle in a culture that only values those that are outgoing, verbal, and social. Shyness can be debilitating, effecting overall well-being and mental health. The educational system places great emphasis on verbal participation, which is often thought to be a sign of engagement. To foster engagement, activities like the “fishbowl” are promoted.

Dictionary.com defines "fishbowl" as “a place, job, or condition in which one's activities are open to public view or scrutiny.”

For those that don’t know, the “fishbowl” is where the teacher separates students into an "inner" and "outer" circle. In the inner circle (or “fishbowl”), students have a discussion. Those in the outer circle listen to (or scrutinize) the discussion and take notes. Students are asked an open-ended question to start the discussion.

Why has this “fishbowl” activity been assumed to be a universally effective teaching method? Can a method be deemed effective if it makes 40% of the class anxious, and some even physically ill? (I am not exaggerating.) Is the intended result to ignite a panic attack and send students off for counseling support? I asked teachers and support staff, “What is the goal?” The responses I received? “Student engagement!” “Preparing them for the real world!” And sadly: “They just need to suck it up.”

Do we really think a student would be engaged when frightened? So scared to speak in front of adults and peers, their mind, as the kids say, “goes blank”. Are we looking to make the learning environment a comfortable, safe place for all students – or only for those that have the “desired” personality trait? For those that experience anxiety in social situations, I doubt they learn much. Well, from my experience, what they learn are the best ways to avoid class.

The fact is, different personalities need different strategies to support their engagement.

How often do we see “participation” as part of a student’s grade, at times heavily weighted? The quiet student may be just as engaged as the verbal student. Or perhaps we are losing the once engaged quiet student because they are abandoning the uncomfortable situation. Many educators will defend this practice, saying it prepares kids for the "real" world. But ask yourself: How many jobs do you know where the fishbowl activity is daily practice? If we really take a careful look at the “real world” of work, we are going to find considerable variation in how much social interaction and “public speaking” is required.

If you want students to be engaged, get to know your students, and understand their different personalities. I’m not suggesting we exempt students from all public speaking activities, but there appears to be a lack of effort, or perhaps a lack of understanding, when it comes to encouraging students with personalities that don't match dominant (and unexamined) cultural expectations. There is this underlying feeling that we are trying to “fix” them. What type of box – or bowl – are we trying to fit students into?