Common Sense and the Common Core: Student Talk in Mathematics

Please enjoy this video produced by Fresno Pacific University, Continuing Education.  Harlan Elrich, an FPU adjunct professor and K-12 teacher in Sanger, shares with us some common sense for implementing the common core state standards in the K-12 mathematics classroom.


  1. This sort of group teaching for Math was used for my eldest daughter in junior high. That was 17 years ago. There were many issues with the groups.
    How does the teacher put together the groups? What if the students in the group do not actively participate and the group work is essentially done by those who are the most motivated (this could be one student)? In this case, one student has no one else to learn from in his/her group. Yet often in my daughter’s experience, the whole group would be given a group grade –even nonparticipants.
    The students soon find out who cares and who doesn’t or who is bright and who isn’t. The more advanced students try to form their own groups so that they can get better grades and learn the materials. Those in the less advanced groups continue to struggle. Additionally, teachers could not “make” kids participate.
    This method was eventually dropped. I do think that having missed out on the more conventional approach to teaching math put my child behind the curve in more advanced math classes. Concepts were never clearly learned. This experience makes me very concerned about the “new” Common Core approach.
    I would be interested to hear your take on this.

  2. Obviously, there is no “perfect” teaching strategy. What works for some students won’t work for others, and vice versa. And, no, there is on “perfect” grading policy. The objective is to get students to talk to each other. So, putting together groups is the teachers responsibility, not to be left to the students to choose. An effective teacher can tell, within a couple weeks of beginning a class, who will work well with whom. When the groups are formed, then it is also up to the teacher to see that all are participating. And again, there is no quick and easy fix to make sure that all students talk in the group. However, if the teacher assigns roles to each person in the group, and one of the more outgoing students is tasked with being the facilitator, this students “role” then is to encourage each of the members of the group to participate.

    One method which I have seen used by strong teachers is to have each member of the group grade the other members and give evidence for the grade given. This encourages most students to participate at least a little. Another method to get students to talk, and get them to learn a little at the same time is to make sure that every student has an opportunity to explain the new concept to someone else. This forces them to at least study a little bit. All of this is reflective of the culture that the teacher has built in the classroom. In my classroom, when students walk in on day one, they are put into a group of three or four. They must learn to work with the members of their group right away, as there is an assignment that day that they have to do as a group. So, they know from the beginning what is expected of them.

    So, how do I form the groups? Well, in the beginning, it is random. But as time goes on there are three, or four, different levels of student in every group. Never with the top students work in the same group. After doing this method for a while I had a group of four who were all different levels of students, from an A student to a student who had an F. After working together for a few weeks, I had to separate them because they were all now in the top tier of 8 in the class. They went on to other groups and helped other students to do better, just they way they had been helped.

    As a major proponent of Common Core, I am excited about continuing to work in groups and to put more of the responsibility of learning, and teaching, on the students. Again, if it is built into the culture of the class from the beginning they will perform. Obviously it will never be perfect, but if the students know that the class is going to be run that way, and not changed, they will adapt, willingly or under peer pressure from group members.

  3. Thank you Mr. Elrich for responding to my questions/concerns. I do like the methods that you describe as being used by “strong teachers”. My concern is that perhaps we do not have enough “strong teachers”. I know that many seasoned teachers are not fans of the new common core approach. This is definitely a skill—learning how to effectively put school-age student groups together to facilitate learning. If that skill is not learned, common core will fail-as a similar approach did nearly 20 years ago. I hope that the State of California and local school districts are putting a big emphasis on learning group facilitation skills.
    Just this last year, in the high school setting, often students were “free” to choose their own groups…again for a group grade. The teachers did not do the selecting of group members. The result… the “smart kids” banded together in their own groups.
    Unfortunately there is so much pressure to get a 4.0+ on one’s high school transcripts, that students will naturally try to manipulate group membership so that they will get a high grade in any group work. I know that there is no easy answer. I just wanted to point out the reality that moving to a Common Core philosophy has some very real issues of concern.

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