Getting the Best Out of People: Freedom v. Control

Blowhard, Esq. writes:

Seth Roberts, formerly of Berkeley and now professor at Tsinghua University in Beijing, decided to stop grading his students. He writes:

The more freedom I gave my students, the more difficult it became to grade them. At Tsinghua I teach a required class for freshman psychology majors called Frontiers of Psychology. There are 20-30 students. It covers recent research. For the first few years, I had students write comments on the reading. “Write something only you could write,” I said. The students struggled to figure out what that meant. I struggled to grade their answers.

Before last semester began, I had an idea: no grading. Maybe other sources of motivation, would be enough.

So what were the results?

It was the most pleasant teaching experience of my life. It was also the easiest by far, in contrast to my Berkeley colleagues’ claim that my ideas led to “too much work.”  The hours I had spent every week grading homework in previous versions of the course — the part of the course I liked  least — was gone. At the end of the class, I spent many hours discussing the student projects, but I enjoyed these discussions. They didn’t feel like work. The students had chosen topics they wanted to study and seemed happy to talk about what they had done. Unlike an oral exam, almost nothing was riding on what they told me and they could be proud of what they were talking about, since it was almost entirely their idea.

The students’s work was the highest quality I have ever seen. Two of their final projects might be publishable. (And these are first-semester freshmen.) It’s not my field, so I can’t be sure, but they have great inherent interest and no obvious flaws. The students seemed to like the class, too. On the final day, which happened to be Christmas, they gave me a Christmas card signed by everyone in the class. One student gave me a card separately. “Thank you,” I said. “Why did you give me this?” Among other things, she said I had high standards. Given the absence of grades, that was interesting. Maybe it came from the fact that after every presentation, I would point out something I liked and something I thought could be better. I tried to do that with all of my feedback. Another student told me, after the final class, that what I had said about “the best way to learn is to do” was, in her case, very true. She said she had learned more in my class than in all her other classes put together.

Students who are respected and trusted enough to pursue their own projects, lines of inquiry, and curiosities? A very Montaignian method of education.

Do people give you their best when they’re given the most freedom, at least within certain bounds? In a subsequent post, Seth shared this excerpt from an interview with Steven Soderbergh:

INTERVIEWER You’ve talked at length about giving actors as much freedom as possible. That’s resulted in a number of performances that have launched, revived, and revitalized careers. In the case of Jennifer Lopez in Out of Sight, you’re responsible for her only good film performance.


SODERBERGH It’s not that I never say no; I’m just not trying to control them. I’m looking to amplify and showcase whatever it is about them that I find compelling.

On the other hand, after reading those posts, I came across this interview with Kevin Spacey talking about being directed by David Fincher:


“Part of what I feel when he’s doing that — and I like working this way — is that, you know, he’s pushing you in a certain direction. He’s having you go in a different direction this way; he’s having you try a new meaning, a new approach to a line of dialogue in this way; and, frankly, the other truth is actors bring a lot of complicated accessories to the set. And some of those accessories are gestures, and some of those accessories are, ‘Oh, I found a kind of cute way of saying a line,’ or ‘I like the way my voice does this,’ or ‘I’m going to use this Coke can to do this.’ And I think sometimes, with David, it feels like [what] he’s looking for is the cleanest, streamlined version of the idea that the character’s trying to express. … And he’s just simply, at a certain point, beating the acting out of you. And I’m quite grateful for that.”

Thoughts? Reactions?

About Blowhard, Esq.

Amateur, dilettante, wannabe.
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4 Responses to Getting the Best Out of People: Freedom v. Control

  1. Fenster says:

    Wow that’s an interesting post asking a deep question. A series of deep questions, really, spreading out like concentric circles. There’s the narrow question of freedom and control in the specific historical context of Chinese higher education. Then there’s the broader question of freedom and control in education as a general matter. Then there’s freedom and control as civilizational guideposts.

    Starting at the broadest level, here’s that pesky Eric Li in Foreign Affairs telling us once again that we in the West have our heads up our asses relative to the need for so-called democratic freedoms.

    I hate his argument, mostly because he makes it so well. It’s worth reading since it brings some perspective to bear on your comments about universities in China, I think.

    But then what of higher education itself? Freedom or control? At the risk of cliche, don’t you need both, in proper measure and, even more important, in proper sequence?

    The rap against Chinese students is that they have been turned into test robots by their system. You’d think a test robot would not do well in an unstructured environment–i.e., just tell me what I need to do to get an A, please. But Seth Roberts reports the opposite. Why would that be the case?

    For one, maybe, we are dealing here with the best of the best in China–a huge country. Tsinghua is ranked around third in all of China, meaning they are getting students who are simply off the charts in terms of the Gaokao, the entry test. Perhaps it is the case that these kids are simply brilliant enough, and worldly enough, to take the Pepsi Challenge, and to knock off publication quality papers as freshmen without prior background with “freedom”, from a standing start.

    An interesting question, then, would be: did the non-freedom rigor of their prior educational experience help them or hurt them when it came time to spread their wings and fly?

    And the turnabout question, too: does America’s relative freedom all through the system make it harder to fly? Would the system benefit from some additional backbone?


    • >>But then what of higher education itself? Freedom or control? At the risk of cliche, don’t you need both, in proper measure and, even more important, in proper sequence?

      That was my thought too, but the hard part comes in applying when and where and how much.

      >>For one, maybe, we are dealing here with the best of the best in China–a huge country.

      Seth addresses that issue in the post.

      “Would this work with other students? My students were/are very smart, yes. Tsinghua is extremely hard to get into and entrance is mostly based on a standardized test. My students, in other words, did very well under the usual system of teaching. This can be interpreted two ways: (a) They like the usual way of teaching, it fits them (they succeeded because of the usual methods) or (b) like everyone else, they dislike the usual way of teaching but unlike everyone else figured out how to learn on their own. The first interpretation suggests that my students would benefit less than other students from the novelty of my approach. The second interpretation suggests they would benefit more. What is clear is that Tsinghua students are known for studying very hard — yet my class required no studying beyond reading and understanding.”

      >>And the turnabout question, too: does America’s relative freedom all through the system make it harder to fly? Would the system benefit from some additional backbone?

      Although you’re right that, relative to China, in America’s educational system students are relatively free, I still don’t think we need more control, I think we need less. After all, in any given class (I’m talking humanities and social sciences here), all of the students are treated the same — same books, same assignments, same tests. Or, as you pointed out earlier, maybe we need a combination of classes: strict control like most Chinese students get coupled with classes in which great latitude is given.


      • Fenster says:

        Roberts ends his piece by concluding that motivations beyond grades can be pretty powerful. That makes sense. After all, it is not the grades that the students are frantic about–it is the narrow window to success. They’ve grown up with grades correlating with that to an unusually high degree and of course it would be easy to make the mistake that grades and success are one and the same. But these are driven kids who are probably savvy about the fact that it is really all about success, with grades being the main measure.

        I note that Roberts dispensed with a large emphasis on grades BUT he did not just get all loosy-goosy. That might have made even these elite students nervous. No, he still provided a clear and explicit rubric, one that de-emphasizes grades. So now the students know what they have to do to succeed: do all the new things Roberts suggests they do, and they do, for the most part. I think that’s great, but it is not clear to me they are motivated by a love of research psychology. It could just be a higher level way of giving the teacher what he wants as a way of ensuring success.

        BTW, the conflict between the test orientation of the Chinese and the, let’s say, holistic view of the Americans is on display at the NYU-Shanghai website. This is the first true joint venture university in China, one that is expected to draw more Chinese than Americans. It is instructive to watch the video explaining the Common Application to the Chinese. Many applicants know only of the Test. The world of the Common App, which highlights the American penchant for the holistic approach, is totally new to the Chinese, but it will be used for admission. It’s interesting to watch how that new world is described for a Chinese audience.


  2. Fenster says:

    Relevant section of video around 1:45.


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