When one imagines a traditional classroom, the image that often comes to mind involves rows of students facing towards the teacher at the front of the room either at her desk or the blackboard.  Students are quiet and orderly.  Students follow the same set of instructions and are given the same amount of time to complete their tasks.  The basis of this style of classroom management is grounded in structural theories and operates under the assumption that organizations are like machines.  Although some aspects of a traditional one-room schoolhouse continue to be evident in schools today, the organizations have started to change as a result of human relations theories and system theories.


First, let’s uncover how human relations theorists have impacted the organization of classrooms today.  No matter what position one holds within the education system, everyone has social needs.  As McGregor (1993) argued a person’s “social needs become important motivators of his behavior- needs for belonging, for association, for acceptance by his fellows, for giving and receiving friendship and love” (p. 232).  The Ontario Ministry of Education has recognized the benefits of addressing individuals’ social needs as is evidenced by recent publications.  For example, the Ontario Ministry of Education (2014) is encouraging “educators work together to improve their understanding of what learning is (or could be), generate evidence of what’s working (and what’s not), make decisions about next steps and take action to introduce improvements and innovations” (p. 1).  Recognizing the value of educators collaborating with one another through collaborative inquiry moves beyond the mechanistic ideologies associated with structural theories whereby people are merely “cogs in a machine” (Capra, 2002, p. 104).  Instead the push to foster collaboration is a direct reflection on the benefits of observing participants within the organization as human beings who have social needs.  Such a concept was not present in the traditional one-room schoolhouse whereby teachers were isolated to their classroom and students learned independently.


As such, in a traditional one room schoolhouse the informal networks students associate with were not regarded as not learning potential.  Today the networks and systems by which individuals are connected are increasingly more complex.  Imagine drawing a system to represent all the stakeholders and relationships involved in the education system currently.  Now you may have imagined there are countless relationships which exist within the education system.  As a result, Mitchell and Sackney (2011) encourage schools to be organized around a living systems theories which recognizes that “[w]hat happens at one level of a system or with one person in the community is profoundly connected to, affected by and influencing what takes place at other levels, with other people, to other living things, and to the planet itself” (p. 25).  The education system has not fully grasped the organization of a living system at this point in time.  

However, I would argue that when one examines the Citizenship Education Framework within the Ontario Curriculum for Social Studies Grades 1 to 6; History and Geography Grades 7 and 8, the Ontario Ministry of Education is beginning to recognize the merit of observing the educational benefits of viewing the system as a whole rather than as disconnected parts.  The Citizenship Education Framework encourages members of the system to make connections to local, national and global communities (Ontario Ministry of Education, 2013, p. 10).  The Ontario Ministry of Education appears to recognize the philosophy held by Capra (2002) that  “[i]n order to maximize a company’s creative potential and learning capabilities, it is crucial for managers and business leaders to understand the interplay between the organization’s formal, designed structures and its informal, self-generating networks” (p. 110).  Such interconnectedness was not valued in traditional school systems whereas today we are encouraging students to engage in their learning in a relevant manner.  


In conclusion, the emergence of human relations and systems theory have initiated change within the context of the education system and thus how the classroom is structured.



Capra, F. (2002). The hidden connections: Integrating the biological, cognitive, and social dimensions of life into a science of sustainability. New York: Doubleday.

McGregor, D. M. (1993). The human side of enterprise. In M. T. Matteson, & J. M. Ivancevich (Eds.), Management and organizational behavior classics (5th ed.) (pp. 229-237). Homewood, IL: Irwin. (Original work published 1957)

Mitchell, C., & Sackney, L. (2011). Sustainable learning communities: From managed systems to living systems. Journal of Educational Administration and Foundations, 22(1). 19-38.

Ontario Ministry of Education. (2014, September). Collaborative inquiry in Ontario. Capacity Building Series, 39.

Ontario Ministry of Education. (2013). The Ontario curriculum: Social studies, grades 1 to 6, history and geography, grades 7 and 8. Toronto: Ontario, Ministry of Education.