Written by Sarah Stecher published 5 months ago
Questioning is the number one strategy we can use to develop students’ thinking. However, not all questions are created equal. Though our intent may be to help guide students toward a specific understanding, strategy, or solution, the way we go about doing that may actually undermine our efforts.
When our aim is to advance student thinking, there are two types of questions we can ask: funneling questions and focusing questions. As their names suggest, funneling questions lead students on a step-by-step path toward the answer YOU had in your mind. They are generally yes/no or one-word-answer questions where a student has to simply pick up the breadcrumbs you left for them. You direct the path and the student takes the steps, which often end up being procedural in nature because the conceptual aspect of forging a solution path has already been taken over by the teacher. Focusing questions on the other hand, place the cognitive responsibility on the student. They are often prompts that invite students to notice patterns, look for counterexamples, make connections between similar problems, and get the student to articulate in their own words the main idea of the lesson. They are curious questions like “what makes this problem different?” or “why can you add these two equations?” rather than “what do I do next?” questions.
Funneling questions are questions aimed at getting an answer. They prescribe a path. Focusing questions are questions aimed at developing understanding.
The table below summarizes these differences:
A Classroom Example
Suppose students are working on question 4 of this Completing the Square lesson.
The previous question provided some scaffolding to complete a similar problem, helping students see how the area model could be used to determine what value needed to be added to a quadratic expression to “complete the square”.
In question 4, students are given a new but similar problem, but without any scaffolding.
We’ll look at two transcripts of a teacher working with a small group.
Note the kinds of responses each of these questions elicit from students.
Note who is doing the heavy lifting in each exchange. (Who is stating the big ideas of the lesson?)
How are these two transcripts different?
Transcript 1 has the teacher guiding students in the steps of the procedure, essentially mimicking the previous example. The teacher is asking funneling questions to help get students to an answer.
Transcript 2 has the teacher guiding students in understanding the procedure, so they will be able to understand why it works and how it applies to many different problems. The teacher is asking focusing questions to help get students to an understanding.
So how do we ask more focusing questions and less funneling questions? Here are some suggestions:
- Audio record yourself during a lesson or have a colleague observe you and write down the questions you ask. Later, pay attention to what kinds of questions you’re asking and how students are responding. The first step is to be aware of how we naturally ask questions!
- For an upcoming lesson, anticipate some student solutions and plan some focusing questions ahead of time that you can pull out when you see a group using that anticipated strategy.
- Be crystal clear about the main conceptual idea you want students to walk away with in a lesson and generate questions that help students arrive at that idea, rather than just focusing on the numerical answer in the problem.