It Might Seem Like a Miracle

David Streight (November 2022)

One of my favorite education stories is the one that made the cover of WIRED Magazine in October of 2013, about 12-year-old Paloma Noyola—a fifth-grader from a slum school  across the border from Brownsville, Texas. What made Paloma a cover story, with headlines wondering if she might be “the next Steve Jobs,” was that she had just bested every other fifth grader in the country in national mathematics achievement testing.

I loved Paloma’s story, but what I loved even more was the lesser-covered details behind the big story. Poverty-stricken families, a meagerly-equipped school (its two computers were in administrative offices), and yet ten students in Paloma’s class scored not at the 99th percentile, but at the 99.99th percentile, and three scored similarly in Spanish. The previous year, 45% of her class had “essentially failed the math section,” and 31% had what were considered “failing” marks in Spanish. When they were fifth graders—just one year later—those numbers had dropped to 7% failing math, and 3.5% in language.

Now let’s not expect WIRED to talk in terms of self-determination theory, but if you are a regular reader of Heart of Character newsletters, it is impossible to read Joshua Davis’s cover article without being hit over the head (metaphorically, of course) with autonomy and competence. And all this under the care of a loving teacher, Sergio Juarez Correa, who wanted nothing more than to give his students a good challenge and more meaningful school experience than they, and he, had known before.

After dividing his new fifth-graders into work groups and helping them with collaboration skills, one of Juárez Correa’s favorite activities seems to have entailed dropping what we’d call an “optimal challenge” on the class, and then standing back, or even leaving the room, just long enough for work groups to struggle their way through the challenge, together. Ultimately he put these groups in charge of classroom behavior and discipline too. After five years of boredom in his teaching career, he had decided to start Paloma’s fifth-grade year with autonomy-support’s number one strategy as his opening questions: “What do you want to learn this year? What are you interested in?” We might say, “What are you intrinsically motivated to learn?”

“Optimal challenges” are those “not too hard, but just hard enough” tests of our skills that build confidence—a sense of competence—because success comes after a little struggle. One challenge Juárez Correa offered the class, though he was especially watching Paloma that day, was the story about 18th century German mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss.

“When Gauss was your age,” Mr. Juárez began, “his teacher asked the class to add up every number between 1 and 100. Gauss had the answer almost immediately. Does anyone know how he did it?” The task takes most students close to an hour, as they begin their additions. Paloma looked at the early numbers for a moment, then she raised her hand: “The answer is 5,050. There are 50 pairs of 101.”

“Why didn’t you do math like this last year?” the teacher asked. Paloma’s reply: “Because no one made it this interesting.”

Davis’s article noted that this autonomy-supportive, competence-nudging teacher “got almost no recognition, despite the fact that nearly half of his class had performed at a world-class level and that even the lowest performers had markedly improved.” And even then, the article deals too little with Sergio Juárez Correa’s strategies and it barely mentions Paloma Noyola’s classmates. But I still consider it worth a read, for the inspiration, for the motivation, for the realization that these things can happen in classrooms where teachers work with children. If you do read it, though, you’ll need to insert your own references to autonomy, belonging, and competence, for they get no mention at all.

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