Unless you were in my Economics class at Tomahawk High School, the words “Supply and Demand Challenge” probably don’t get you excited. You don’t start sweating, or shaking, or running through various economic scenarios in your head. But I can still remember how excited I was for that academic competition, and how earnestly I had prepared for it.
Admittedly, these reactions weren’t totally unique. Of course I’d studied before, and felt nervous before exams. That can be attributed to my garden-variety test anxiety. No matter how hard I studied, there was always the possibility that I’d have an of” day, one 50-minute period of time where I’d drop the ball, lose focus or draw a blank, and it would irreparably ruin my high school record. But this piece isn’t about grades and how much I loathe them. In fact, the Supply and Demand Challenge had nothing to do with grades.
It wasn’t an exam of any kind, just a way for us to study. All we “had” to do was participate and give an honest effort, but preparation outside of class was optional. Those who dropped out of the competition immediately after one round were given the same participation grade as those who won the whole thing.
There wasn’t an explicit incentive to training for the Supply and Demand Challenge, not even extra credit. Doing well in the challenge only meant doing more work, doing more supply-demand problems, drawing more graphs. Winning was some reward in of itself, I guess, but so was getting to sit through a class period and relax for an hour. So, then, why were most of my peers and I so excited, so driven to do well in this challenge, when all it entailed was working harder?
Because for once, the kids who wanted to try hard were getting MORE attention, not less.
Funny how it’s usually the other way around, right? But it makes sense: if one student isn’t doing their work and the rest of the students are, that one student’s going to get most of the teacher’s attention. Not because they’ve done anything to deserve it, but because the teacher has to keep class moving and make sure no one gets left behind.
And take two students who are both struggling in the same class. The first student studies the material on their own time, looks up videos online, and takes practice tests, and the second student doesn’t. Ideally the teacher would be able to reach out to both struggling students, but if they only have time for one, they’ll go to the second student. Again, only because it’s necessary, not because it’s fair.
I know that’s an oversimplification, and I’m not trying to throw any shade on teachers for looking after struggling students. It’s their job, after all, and most teachers are superb at it. But at the end of the day, the more a student is able to accomplish on their own--whether by natural ability, extra effort, or some combination of the two--the less the teacher needs to do for them. And that’s perfectly fine...if all you’re concerned about is grades. If a teacher’s attention was divided based on willingness to learn, regardless of where the student fell on the bell curve, I think it would be a different story.
Which is why The Supply and Demand Challenge was so special and exciting, even if I didn’t know exactly why at the time. The students who didn’t care, who learned just enough to pass the test and nothing more, fell out of the competition right away. No punishment, no grade penalty, they just weren’t able to compete anymore.
And with those students out of the way, the rest of us were able to run wild. We went up to the whiteboard over and over again, racing to shave another second off our graph-drawing time and advance up the roster of teams. It didn’t matter how good we were at it; every team was duking it out with each other, scrambling for split-second victories. By the end of the class, we were screaming and jumping out of our desks, immersed in the thrall of basic supply and demand principles.
And the grand prize? Nothing more than the team roster itself, a piece of paper with your team’s name in the coveted ‘champion’ blank. Yeah, winning was fun, but it was the experience that was the real prize. No one from that class remembers which teams won, but I guarantee we all remember the competition itself.
Economics was a class every senior had to take. Some of us might’ve opted to take the class even if it wasn’t required, but I’m guessing that most students weren’t jumping at the opportunity. Since it was a required class, I wasn’t expecting to be challenged very much. No matter how “advanced” a class was, it was always limited by the student who tried the least. And since everyone in my grade was taking this class, the odds of getting put in a class with someone who didn’t try at all was depressingly high.
Looking back, the only reason that class was, and remains, one of my favorites was how the teacher handled this type of student. Yes, of course the teacher set aside extra time for students who were struggling, but they also bypassed the students who didn’t try at all. The student got a warning, an offer of help, and that was it. I think I speak for the rest of the class when I say how much of a relief that was. We could come into class every day knowing that we’d accomplish something, not get hung up on a single problem student who hadn’t yet decided to start caring.
Economics was a class for people who wanted to try. The Supply and Demand Challenge was the most tangible evidence of that: it relied entirely on people wanting to challenge themselves just for the sake of a challenge.
The biggest thing I learned from that class is that, thankfully, most students do care. They want to learn, and they want to be challenged. They just need the opportunity.