Questioning Revisited: Funneling vs. Focusing

funnelsWhat are the differences between a funnel, and a magnifying lens? One allows you to pour materials into a precise spot. The other lets you see things more closely and in more detail. Strangely enough, they are useful analogies for questioning in our content instruction.

Think back to the discussion on strategic questioning in Unit 5.1. Let's consider the effect questions have on the nature of students' responses, and the sort of thinking that is promoted.

A recent article, "Questioning our Patterns of Questioning," offers another way to think about the questioning strategies that teachers use during investigative tasks like "Hikers Beware." The authors, Herbel-Eisenmann and Breyfogle (2005), categorize teacher questions as either funneling or focusing with respect to the kind of support they offer students.

Questions that funnel lead students into narrow response patterns and constricts higher-level thinking; thus, funneling questions are often detrimental to the objectives of the task. Focusing questions, on the other hand, act more like a magnifying lens: they aid students in clarifying their thinking, help them to make mathematical connections, and bring their attention to important features of the task they may have overlooked or misinterpreted. In this way, focusing questions maintain the integrity of the task objectives.


In the two clips below, observe examples of both focusing and funneling questions.

In this first clip, Ms. England engages the students in explaining how they arrived at a result (one that happens to be incorrect). Rather than directly correcting their mistake, she asks a series of questions in order to elicit the thinking that led to the erroneous result.

Note how Ms. England is able to engage the other pair of students in the group, even though they had been working with a different set of data. Once the original pair of students realizes their error, Ms. England helps them to think about how to determine the result correctly, while avoiding simply giving them the answer.

In this next clip. Ms. England uses a series of didactic questions to lead students to use the word "slope" in completing the sentence, "Parallel lines will always have similar what?"

Classroom Clip Reflection:

  • How does Ms. England use questioning to support student thinking?
  • Why are focusing and funneling questions important? Is there a time and place for both?
  • How do you know when to use a focusing question versus a funneling question?
  • What are the implications for your work with students?