Scientific Management & Schools as Social Systems: Best Practices Leadership

In his article Social Systems, Talcott Parsons describes the overarching purpose of any organization as the attainment of a particular goal (p. 98).  He goes on to illustrate how the goal of any functional organization would connect itself in a valuable way to some need or desire of a larger system (p. 99).  He expands on that notion by suggesting that the achievement of that goal would produce, “goods or services that are either consumable or serve as instruments for a further phase of the production process by other organizations” (p.99).  In education, learning is the means by which our product is generated.  Through varied systems and structures we work tirelessly to provide students with the ability to make meaning from the knowledge and experiences they come by in our institutions.  We aim to guide them through the standard phases of human development that we each brave during early childhood, adolescence, and young-adult life, with an eye on individualism, diversity, and integration into the ever-complexifying world in which we live.  Incidentally, I feel comfortable inventing compound words like “ever-complexifying” to describe the larger social system (or “other organization”) whose “production process” we wish to positively impact with our commodity (educated citizens), in part because that system changes at a dizzying pace which, in my mind, demands that type of liberty.

Were time travel possible 100 years ago, an explorer from 1913 might wonder if the modern world is in fact a work of fiction, invented by way of the collective imaginations of his children and theirs.  Moreover, our children, along with the students we teach, could be the ones to perpetuate innovations in time travel, considering its ethical, financial, and political implications, and integrating it into the paradigm of their society.  As social systems, schools are responsible for helping young people understand what is expected of global citizens, in the workplace, in the home, and as positive contributors to their society at large…and that’s a big deal!

Parsons suggests that organizations are “subsystems” of one another (p. 100).  It gives me cause to think about the fact that learning literally leads to every service, good, or commodity in existence.  Through formalized education, trade apprenticeships, impassioned self-study, and/or other varied means, we must each learn to do the things we do.  This makes schools unique in that everyone who works for or benefits from the productivity of a school community (which is arguably everyone) is a member of that school as an organization.  Each student needs to learn, and whether or not they fully appreciate it, each student needs all of the other students to learn too.  As a social system schools are enhanced when we focus on individual AND collaborative growth and development.  Parsons concludes that organizations as social systems are, “organized for the attainment of a particular type of goal,” and that the goal is, “the performance of a type of function on behalf of a more inclusive system, the society” (p. 108); which leads to Scientific Management.

In chapter one of his book, Classical Organization Theory, Fredrick Winslow Taylor tackles The Principles of Scientific Management.  He writes about “labor saving devices” and “soldering,” and how traditional forms of management isolate workers, often causing them to feel disconnected and threatened.  In education, we face some complicated and relatively unique management challenges, not the least of which (for all involved) is the need for creative budgeting and often-complicated labor negotations.  However, those challenges often balance out as they collide with the universal and extreme passion for our mission that exists in the classrooms, the schools, the central and board offices, and the homes in communities in which we do our essential work.  Taylor outlines “the first of the great burdens which are voluntarily undertaken by those on the management side” as,

the deliberate gathering together of the great mass of traditional knowledge which, in the past, has been in the heads of the workmen, recording it tabulating it, reducing it, in most cases to mathematical formulae, which, with these new laws, are applied to the cooperation of the management to the work of the workmen (p.73).

In my experiences, this burden really pops when it’s shared.  The most effective educational leaders I’ve worked with have perpetuated cultures of collaborative learning by encouraging leadership at all levels.  The most successful learning communities I’ve been blessed to work in hold students, teachers, administrators, parents, and all other critical community partners to the task of assuming leadership roles in the development and implementation of best practices.  Taylor suggests that scientific management is effective in part because it forces collaboration through mutual benefits that often come in the form of financial gain.  One of the things that I love the most about our amazing field is that so many of us push harder than we have to, stay up later than we’re asked to, dig deeper than we ever thought we could, and care about our outcomes with every fiber of our beings, not because it earns us more money, but because we feel called to do so.  In my estimation, education is a profession full of people who work under a system that could be described as very similar to Taylor’s scientific management system.  We are constantly developing ourselves, and our systems, by critically reflecting on our collective daily work.  As a public school administrator, Taylor reminds me just how important it is to remain connected to all pieces of the learning puzzle, to value partnership above all else, and to thrive on the contributions of those I serve.  When we recognize our organization as a social system and are scientific about our process in collaborative ways, students grow, and we all benefit.


Dream Big.  Work Hard.  Be Well







  1. David Ivers

    Talcott Parsons did much to solidify our understanding of society. Garfinkle’s thesis On Work, uses phenomenonology and arrives at a different point, the how do we know questions. This brings freedom to explore other paradigms. If Scientific Management is your passion explore the unrelated area of Management Science. In 1997 & 1998 I published in Australia 2 works. One was on the Entropic Organization the other on Organizations Complexity and the Search for Meaning. The upshot-the world according to Science is chaotic and organizations reflect the world are by nsture chaotic and Entropic. It’s how we bring order or nomos to the chaos of an organization that is the other question. The theorists mentioned arr some ways in which that could be done. David Ivers DipT., BEd., GradCertEd (Online / ICT)., GradDipEd (Rel.Ed)., MEdAdmin., AACS., MCCEAM.,. MACEL., MACE., AFAIM.

    • bergseye

      Thank you David! I appreciate your insightful commentary and your suggestion for further study. Management science sounds like something I would be interested in. I’ll take your advice:). Have a wonderful weekend!

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