Learning from Sheffield’s Little Mesters: Innovation in Schools for the 4th Industrial Revolution

Learning from Sheffield’s Little Mesters: Innovation in Schools for the 4th Industrial Revolution

“History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme” ― Mark Twain


I’ve been developing an interest in innovation in schools recently (Webb, 2018). I skirted by innovation during my time at Cranfield University as a PhD Student and researcher, and a littler later on in academic appointment at Sheffield Hallam University. During those times my interest emerged through interactions with other colleagues whose work more closely focused on innovation, getting involved in their projects a little, and then also publishing and relating some of my own findings from research to innovation in the context of organizational learning and the people learning in them (Webb et al, 2006).

Some of the earlier work I was invited to help publish focused on innovation labs or hubs and their role in organisations and communities in forming part of the enabling culture and environment for innovation to flourish (Dvir et al, 2007; Dvir et al, 2006; Dvir et al, 2004).

Now we sit on the edge of what Schwab is calling the 4th Industrial Revolution – I am not 100% convinced by this. My skepticism rests on feeling that the claims are too grand and perhaps unsubstantiated: a bit like the dot com boom of the 90s – is there really any substance behind it? Like the dot com boom, and subsequent crash, my feeling is that there are certainly technologies emerging which are providing more diverse ways of getting things done. However, like the internet and the dot com boom, due to great social and technological inequalities, there will continue to be legacy systems and modes of practice in existence for some time to come, and rather than being a revolution that will eradicate what came before it, rather there will be complimentary ways of doing things offered, providing evermore proliferation of choice.

In this vein, and revisiting my own local history from my birth town of Sheffield, the first industrial revolution that took place there was largely instigated by what came to be known as “the Little Mesters”, as Griffiths explains:

“Between 1770 – 1850, Sheffield’s metal trades expanded prodigiously, predominantly in the areas of cutlery manufacture, silver plated goods and steel production. Industrial organisation in the metals industry during this period was generally small scale, the typical unit of production being the individual cutler in his (and occasionally her) workshop. Plating and steel production were larger operations but they still relied on small teams of skilled metal workers and bore little resemblance to the factories of the textile industry or the steel works of the later nineteenth-century”  … “independent cutlers and metal workers or small, usually family based, partnerships”.


The small teams of skilled metal workers, independent cutlers and small, family-based partnerships were the Little Mesters. The skills were based on rigorous apprenticeships grounded in technological knowledge and skills development learned through on the job training and experience side by side with master craftsmen (and sometimes women too).

This reminded me of several things in the context of the current discussion on innovation in schools and the 4th industrial revolution. Firstly, the high level technical skills being channeled into current technological innovation and advancement are based on artificial intelligence and machine learning, and the access of the masses to the use of such technology to the same degree as ever person’s access to knives and forks: the mobile phone sits on the dinner table by most meals too. Secondly, some schools are ramping up and empowering kids with the knowledge, know-how and resources to see what they can do with this stuff (Webb, 2018). Where schools are not delivering innovation labs or the right culture to do their bit to foster innovative potential among school age children, universities are now starting to fill the gaps and invite school age kids along to play anyway (Zaatari, 2018).


However, while some kids will no doubt rise to the challenge and do wonder, who will be left out? How can we make sure everyone is included? Does the future just belong to the bright and the privileged? I’m interested to see how the most underprivileged will be given access and advantage and expert mentorship as apprentices of the future of innovation that lies before us. How will you help all children to have their chance of becoming a Little Mester of the 4th Industrial Revolution?

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