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The Fisheye Syndrome: Is Every Student Really Participating?


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Greta just had an amazing discussion with her fifth period history class. They’ve been studying the Holocaust, and in today’s class, the points students brought up were so insightful. She had originally planned for about ten minutes of conversation, but things were going so well, she let it go for the whole period. Days like this make Greta feel like a great teacher.

Except for the stuff she didn’t notice. Like Haley. Haley had a lot of questions today, but never found the right moment to ask them. She doesn’t like to interrupt. A few times, she almost put her hand up, but someone else would start talking before she ever managed to lift it.

Robert is in that class too. He felt like an idiot the whole period—that one kid kept mentioning the Third Reich, and Robert wasn’t 100 percent sure what that was. He definitely didn’t want to ask.

Nadia thought the discussion was dumb—people really oversimplified the whole tragedy. But she didn’t want to start any trouble, so she said nothing.

And Becky and Kyle? The super shy ones? Naturally, they also stayed quiet. Oh, and three other students secretly texted the whole time. In fact, in Greta’s class of 28 students, only nine of them actually contributed to that discussion: Four of those were really into it, five commented once. The other nineteen just sat there. The whole time. Really.

What Greta doesn’t realize is that she is suffering from the Fisheye Syndrome. It’s a condition that impacts our perception, as if we’re looking through a fisheye lens—the kind they use in peepholes. To those afflicted with fisheye, some students appear “larger” than others. They take up more energy and grab more of our attention, making the others fade into the periphery. We have a vague sense that the others are there, and we nag ourselves to include them, but those magnified students are just too hard to resist.

Not You!

Maybe you’re thinking this doesn’t apply to you, especially if you’re used to having animated debates with your students. Unlike some classrooms, where students are asleep most of the time, yours is interactive and engaging, right? Here’s the weird thing: The fact that your class seems so lively might actually be a stronger indication that you’re operating behind the fisheye lens.

I’ve been guilty of fisheye teaching. A lot. And I’ve seen many other teachers, good teachers, do it too.

I don’t think any of us do it on purpose. We do it out of habit, and because it’s so freakin’ gratifying: You pose a question, and one of your super talkative kids pipes up right away with an answer. It’s a good answer, one that takes the class in the direction you were hoping they’d go, demonstrating a solid grasp of the material. Wow, you think, they’re really learning! Then it happens with another student, another extrovert, and then one more. Things are hopping now, a bona fide “class” discussion, but really, you’re just volleying with three or four students. Most of the others have already checked out. We don’t realize it because we’re high on the whole thing, the nice rhythm we’ve got going with those three or four, that we lie to ourselves just a little.

If this sounds even the slightest bit familiar, do some investigating. The best way is to record a few of your classes on video. The only problem is, once you become aware of the imbalance in participation, you’re more likely to try and correct it while recording. Not necessarily a bad thing, unless you overcorrect during the recording and then go back to old habits, never recognizing the presence of the fisheye. Another diagnostic tool is a laminated seating chart: Using a dry-erase marker, put a mark in each student’s place on the chart every time he or she contributes to the class. In no time you’ll have a visual on who is talking and who isn’t.

Whether you think this is an issue in your teaching or not, my goal here is just to put the bug in your ear. To raise your awareness. Tomorrow, when you interact with your students, move your vision to the periphery and ask yourself if those students are as involved as they could be.

Why Equitable Participation Matters

Obviously, increasing student participation is a good thing. But apart from making school a more interesting place to be, why is it important to get all of our students involved in discussions? Can’t a student learn just as much from listening as they would from actively participating?

Discussion is a Pathway for Formative Assessment

Classroom discussion is one of the simplest, quickest, and most effective means of formative assessment we have. By asking our students good questions, we can determine what they know and how well they know it in seconds. But when we allow a pattern to emerge where only our most confident and verbally expressive kids respond, we miss the opportunity to assess the thinking of the others, and we may very well be fooling ourselves into thinking they’re all getting it, when really, they’re not.


Introverted Students Need Practice Speaking

Every year, the National Association of Colleges and Employers surveys employers about the skills they most want in potential employees (updated in 2016). In 2013, the ‘ability to verbally communicate with persons inside and outside the organization’ was near the top of the list. If our task is to help students become college- and career-ready, we are responsible for helping them grow as talkers.

All of our students—especially those who tend to stay quiet—will benefit from regular practice in presenting their ideas effectively, and no amount of listening compares to the cognitive and social challenge of actually having to frame your thoughts into coherent spoken sentences. Taking steps to ensure that all students have more opportunities to participate may be all that’s needed to nudge more introverted students to speak up. Low participation from others might be explained by cultural reasons, language barriers, learning differences, or neurodiversity. In these cases, accommodations may be needed to help students contribute fully.


Extroverted Students Need Practice Listening

Students who are used to center stage will benefit from letting someone else stand in the spotlight. In school, in their careers, and in their most important relationships, listening skills are hugely important. Chances are, your big talkers don’t have a lot of practice in skills like paraphrasing another person’s ideas, asking thoughtful follow-up questions, or thinking quietly before they speak. By making a concerted effort to balance the participation in our classes, we are giving those extroverts a chance to grow in ways that could have a powerful impact on their quality of life.

The End of Fisheye Teaching

So now that the lens is off, how to keep it off? How do we get more students involved? First of all, know that the goal is not to have all students participate at exactly the same rate; the push should be for more balance. If your quieter students contribute one good comment per discussion, that’s a step in the right direction.

Here are some ways to balance things out:

Make your intentions transparent. Talk to your students about this issue, and ask them to help change the current dynamic. This will prepare your less active students, so they won’t be startled by the sudden shift in attention. It will also help your extroverts understand why they are no longer getting the floor the way they’re used to. Some of this might happen behind the scenes: For those who frequently dominate the conversation, you might encourage them to limit the number of comments they make to three per class, or encourage them any time they paraphrase or build on another student’s comment or question. For those who typically hang back, have them choose a question ahead of time that they feel they could contribute something to, and plan to call on them for that item.

Increase wait time. Students vary in the amount of time they need to process higher-level questions. This need can be accomplished with extra wait time. We should be waiting at least three seconds between posing a question and calling on a student to answer (easier said than done). This gives everyone more time to think about what they want to say. Want to go even further? Add a “no hands” time, where no one gets to raise their hands at first: You ask the question, EVERYONE thinks for a moment about their answer with their hands down, then give them the go-ahead to raise their hands, then you call on someone. You’ll be surprised at what a difference this makes to the number of hands that go up.

Pre-load discussions. Give less talkative students a head start by slipping them the discussion questions ahead of time. Actually, go ahead and give them to everyone; all students would benefit from more thinking time.

Vary discussion formats. Any time you can give students a chance to share their thoughts with a smaller audience, you build their courage to share them with the larger group. This is where think-pair-share comes in handy: Rather than holding whole-class free-for-alls, put students in groups of two to four and pose questions one at a time, allowing each group to talk it over first, then call on representatives to recap their discussion for the whole class. Take this a step further by doing a think-WRITE-pair-share, where each student first considers their own answer, writes it down, then shares it with someone else. Not only does this give them more thinking time, it also forces them to answer the question on their own, rather than “what that guy said.”

Use icons. This strategy, described by Ruth Wickham, an English language teacher in Malaysia, is an ingenious way to get active participation from students in large classes. “I printed out four sets of little pictures, just clip-art type things, then I cut them up and stuck one on the first inside page of each (participant) workbook. The icons were all mixed up, so no one had the same as the person next to them, and there were four of each scattered around the room.” She then placed the same icons onto certain slides in her presentation. Whenever an icon (such as a duck) appeared on the screen, participants who had a duck on their paper had to come to the front of the room and answer a question or perform a task. “The looks on their faces every time they saw an icon appear was just classic! We all had a lot of fun and a lot of laughs even with such a big group.”

Finally, if your efforts to balance participation result in less activity overall, read When You Get Nothing But Crickets to explore ways to improve that situation.

Some students are naturally going to be more active, more talkative, livelier than others. We’re not trying to make them all be the same, just better, stronger, more balanced versions of the people that showed up on day one. With your little case of fisheye taken care of, you’ll be ready to help every one of them stretch closer to their full potential. That’s when the real conversation will begin. ♦

Stick around.
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  1. Emilee says:

    Oh my GOODNESS! Sadly, I know about fisheye all too well. It’s true, we’re humans, and we’re naturally drawn to sound and motion, so those extroverted students who yell out or wave their hand in front of your face are easy to call on. It’s also easy to mistake those quiet, shy students as uninterested, so sometimes I wonder if I should call on them for fear of seeing their little face turn red with embarrassment.

    Where is the balance? For me, it’s hard to find. As a still newbie teacher, two things I have tried are: think-pair-share before a full class discussion to get those shy people practice getting their thoughts to a smaller audience first, and, secondly, using an app on my iPad call “Class Dojo” which randomly selects students for me to call.

    I think using the discussion with a partner during think-pair-share has been more successful than Class Dojo, because it causes less anxiety to have already said ideas aloud with a partner versus worrying that Class Dojo will call a student out when they’re definitely not ready. Thanks for the post!

    • Hi Emilee! Thanks for your contribution.

      I forgot all about Class Dojo. I’ve seen that projected on a smartboard in front of the class — is that how it works for calling on students, too, or are you just looking at it on the iPad for calling on students?

      Think-pair-share really is a good practice — even for adults, having an opportunity for even one other person to hear your thoughts and not react like you’re an idiot can go a long way toward building confidence to talk in front of the class.

      • Emilee says:

        I’m not very proficient in my use of Class Dojo, so I haven’t had it projected on the board during class. Class Dojo, really, is a tool for reporting behavior. Every time a student does something well, they get a point and they can hear a “ding” on the screen. Makes them feel good 🙂 A teacher on my team does this. Her students know their log in information and can get into Class Dojo at home and see how many positive/negative interactions they’ve had during class. This is great for use during parent/teacher conferences too. So, as far as calling on students randomly using it, I’m using a minor function of Class Dojo and only looking at it on my iPad.

    • Wonderful, thanks so much!

  2. Paul says:

    The flipside of this is fisheye discipline. I’ve caught myself dwelling on specific annoying groups of students for redirection, even while I’m aware that a particular behavior problem is more widespread through the classroom. Because John and Janie are *always* off-task, I’ll redirect them even if there are half a dozen other students off-task. Or, alternatively, because John and Janie are off-task (AGAIN!), I’ll scold the entire class, even the ones who are on-task.

    Whether it’s discipline or engagement, it’s extremely tough to address twenty to thirty individuals fairly.

  3. I love the icons strategy! I’m going to use it this year!! My classes seem to run the gamut of discussion behavior. Some classes are “out of control” discussing the topics (to the point that we have to use a “talking pillow” to limit the conversation to the whole class), while we can’t get others to talk. Using icons can solve both problems while encouraging kids to pay attention because they might actually have to contribute!

  4. Domenick says:

    In my district, we are taught to use Equity Sticks, which I have found to be a great strategy. In my shirt pocket, I have a class set of popsicle sticks, each with a student’s name. After I ask a question (wait until after you ask it so that everyone has to listen to the question), I pull out a stick to call on a random student. You can put the stick back in your pocket afterwards so that the student can be called on again (this way they don’t tune out after answering a question). The idea is that this is a more equitable way to ask for student participation.

  5. Thanks so much for sharing this article! Such a common occurrence in even the best classrooms with well-intentioned teachers. Thank you for helping educators become more aware of *every* student in each of our classrooms. I’ve extended your great ideas here to include ways to empower every student in mathematics classrooms using technology tools, and had the honor of sharing a 10-minute talk at the 2017 National Council of Teachers of Mathematics Annual Conference.

    Check out my talk, and others, at #ShadowCon17 using this link:

    All the best, Cathy

  6. I loved reading this! It was ages ago, and I’m out of teaching now, so it’s good to see it still being used. Did I mention I had a class of several hundred when I first used the icons? But it works with smaller groups too.

  7. Al-amin says:

    Brilliant work, I have falling victim to the fisheye syndrome way too many times than I can recollect. I find the recommendations to minimize it highly helpful. I appreciate it.

  8. This post presents one of THE problems I have had in my instruction. But I have come up with one of the best solutions! Not a guarantee to get all students participating, but I have seen it engage every single student in my class in discussion before.

    It’s a simple, easy-to-implement strategy that I created called Ongoing Conversations. Jennifer invited me on the podcast to talk about it! Episode 109.


  9. Alexis Mabe says:

    I am naturally an introvert. This is my 11th year teaching, so that should give little indication of my age without actually admitting it 🙂 I have had to spend a lot of time teaching myself how to communicate in crowds, how to express myself and let my voice be heard. Now, I seek out leadership roles in my school and I present at conferences, but it is an ongoing learning process. I often wonder what I could have accomplished earlier if my teachers had been aware of career readiness competencies and if they had cared about helping to teach introverts how to communicate their thoughts.

    • Angie says:

      Thank you for your teaching strategy. May I ask you a question? Can these strategies be applied to students of any age? Are college students also used?

      • Katrice Quitter says:

        Yes! These strategies can be applied to students of any age.

  10. Hello, Jennifer. This is a great article and I love the site. I am writing a report with reflections about noticing the fisheye syndrome in my own teaching. Is this your own terminology or is there a citation or something else I can use? I am planning to cite your article in my paper as well. Many thanks in advance!

  11. Christina Bowens says:

    “The goal is not to have all students participate at exactly the same rate; the push should be for more balance. ”
    Participation can be personality specific and will look differently for each student.

  12. Hi Jennifer

    As an out and proud extrovert, I’ve had to really navigate my way through this issue. I can fully appreciate the point you made about having students understand what is going on.

    For elementary students, I found a particularly helpful resource to use in exploring the different types of personalities is Charlie Parsley and Pearl Barley by Aaron Blabey. It’s a beautiful book and really useful to develop an appreciation for the range of personas in a classroom.

    Thanks for another great post. I love your website. It’s so refreshing to hear a teacher’s voice that is real and relatable.



  13. Ethan Meguiar says:

    Good article, eye opener

  14. Gordon Dobie says:

    Thank you very much for creating and sharing this superb post. I came to it via your post yesterday about ways online and face-to-face teaching should be different. That is also extremely helpful.

    Thanks again!

  15. Tapasya says:

    Excellent article.
    Congratulations !

  16. Michelle Farmer says:

    Never heard of it called the fisheye syndrome but it totally makes sense. My goal daily is to talk to all my students. I feel like this helps to avoid this syndrome. I do tend to have discussions be the same, for routine, but making my format of discussion vary is a great idea.

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