“Tools are just that. In isolation, without context, they have limited value. So handing children a tool accomplishes little. Better: Let’s structure schools so children can really achieve self-actualization.” – Peter Hutton, USA

Peter Hutton - USA
Mar 4

Peter Hutton has had an unusually long tenure as head of Beaver Country Day School – over 20 years – and that has given him a unique perspective on what it takes for a school to thrive in the 21st century. Hutton, who served as both a teacher and administrator at several schools before taking his current post, is particularly committed to professional development and to the kind of cutting-edge education provided at Beaver. Founded in 1920, the school has long tradition of innovation – a tradition that Hutton has continued, incorporating both “design thinking” and the latest technology.

“We did not embrace 1.0 technologies in a systematic way because they did not really shift the classroom dynamic,” Hutton says. “When 2.0 technologies emerged, everything changed. We had more opportunities for collaboration among students, between students and teachers and with the world beyond the classroom. Students can develop more sophisticated projects and engage with real and varied audiences, and teachers and administrators have found better ways to collaborate with each other. Technology is now a just part of Beaver’s DNA.”

Here, Hutton shares his thoughts on 21st century skills (he prefers the term “essential skills”) as well as the tools both teachers and students require to be successful.

What drew you to the field of education? Why is it important to you?

I was drawn to education from my own experiences with both good teachers and bad teachers. I want to play a role in ensuring that all kids have great teachers who understand who they are and what they can achieve.

Can you tell us about a favorite teacher, or someone who made a difference in your education?

Joe Mancuso, my 8th grade English teacher. He got to know me and talked with me as a real person, not a generic kid. In other words, he took me seriously.

Please describe how your professional achievements have advanced innovation in education.  What has changed as a result of your work?

Throughout my time in 20 years as Head of School at Beaver, I have been focused on innovating the classroom learning experience. I have implemented several learning technologies in each classroom, embraced “design thinking” and made Beaver the founding affiliate of NuVu Studio, a magnet innovation center for high school students, to enable a broad range of learning and teaching opportunities.

In your view, what is the most exciting innovation happening in education today?

Educators are just beginning to realize that school is not only about mastering content, but also about the responsibility and opportunity to make the development of 21st century (I call them essential) skills a centerpiece of teaching.

Is there a 21st century skill (critical thinking and problem solving, communication, collaboration, or creativity and innovation) that you are most passionate about? Why?

Collaboration. Done well, teaching students how to collaborate creates exciting ways for them to produce creative and original work.

If you could give one educational tool to every child in the world, what would it be? Why?
Tools (I include computers, tablets, etc.) are just that. In isolation, without context, they have limited value. So handing children a tool accomplishes little. Better:  Let’s structure schools so children can really achieve self-actualization.

What is your country and region doing well currently to support education?

Not nearly enough. The US and Massachusetts public schools, and even charter and independent schools, continue to focus on poorly designed high stakes tests. That includes the SAT and AP tests. Independent schools have the freedom to design curriculum to address 21st century skills and design nuanced metrics to measure student success in those skills.

How must education change to ensure that students are equipped to thrive in the 21st century?

Education absolutely must recognize the importance of essential (21st century) skills and redesign curriculum and assessments to reflect that emphasis. Independent schools have not just the opportunity, but also the responsibility to lead the way.

What is the biggest obstacle you have had to overcome to ensure students are receiving a quality education?

The biggest challenge in delivering a quality education has been convincing prospective parents and students that a school that focuses its success in SAT and AP tests is inadequately serving its students.

How can teachers or school leaders facing similar challenges implement what you’ve learned through your work?

Thought leaders in education and key sectors in the new economy need to join forces with teachers and school leaders to make the case for teaching new and essential skills in our schools.  The workforce demands certain skills, and we are putting students at a disadvantage if we continue to stand by last century’s model for education and neglect this century’s real world requirements.

Check out Peter Hutton’s blog here.

About Peter Hutton
@huttonpeter

  • Birthplace: Buffalo, New York
  • Current residence: Brookline, Massachusetts
  • Education: MA in Literature from Wesleyan University, BA in English from St. Lawrence University
  • Website I check every day: ESPN.com, FastCompany.com and Boston.com
  • Person who inspires me most: Daniel O’Connor, my nephew.
  • Favorite childhood memory: Playing pond hockey and street football. It was spontaneous and fiercely competitive, and there were no adults in sight.
  • Next travel destination (work or pleasure): Austin, Texas for SXSWedu
  • When was the last time you laughed? Why? I run a school with 450 smart/ hilarious kids in grades 6-12. I laugh all the time.
  • Favorite book: The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner
  • Favorite music: R&B, Blues, Jazz, Soul, Celtic AKA Van Morrison
  • What is the best advice you have ever received?  I would describe this as an “epiphany” rather than advice. In 1993, I was having lunch with Ed Eskandarian, then-CEO of Arnold Worldwide. Earlier that month, Arnold had landed the Volkswagen account. On the front page of the Boston Globe there was a picture of Ed with the three-person team that won the account. I asked Ed if five years ago, those three people would have made individual pitches and if he then would have picked the best pitch of the three to present. He said yes and told me that everything had changed; they put the three of them together to come up with a pitch. That was a “holy crap” moment for me. I had thought for a while that group learning was more effective, but at that moment, I fully realized that collaborative learning is essential. It has been a core part of learning at Beaver ever since.  
  • Your favorite quote or motto: Never play a song the same way twice.

Interested in leadership and strategic innovation?

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