Newton-Dr-John_profile-picIn June, Buffalo Rising featured an article on Best of Buffalo Urban Immersion (see here) – a summer program for ages 12-18, designed to energize the spirits of young people by involving them in many of the exciting ventures in the Western New York community through hands-on-learning with local artists, musicians, politicians and business owners. Today we’re featuring one of the organizers of the program, Dr. John Newton.

“I want today’s children to experience the joy and freedom of doing things on their own,” says Newton, a cofounder of Buffalo’s newly-formed Learning Choices Network (LCN), and founder of Mandala School in East Aurora.

As one of LCN’s key organizers, Dr. John is helping to bring the group’s mission— to create, facilitate, and promote alternative opportunities for authentic learning in Buffalo— to life. His 40 years of experience as an educator inform many of the group’s approaches to programming, including the upcoming Best of Buffalo Urban Immersion program August 11-17.

Participants will discover the city with a group of peers and guides, engaging in new activities at different locations each day of the program.

Here, Dr. John offers more insight into how his own learning experiences have inspired his work today, and what he hopes to accomplish through LCN and his other endeavors.


Q: What did you like best about school? About being out of school?

A:The related activities of high school were the most enjoyable: being in Latin Club, Ski Club, Key Club, Model U.N., and various sports. The best class was an optional one for seniors on Russian history. The teacher assigned grades the first day and told us we did not have to do anything. The boys did none of the readings for a while until we realized the girls were reading and they were having great discussions in class. This was the first time that I realized choice in education was valuable along with removing the structure of grades.

Being out of school meant finding my own way in the world. I was lucky in that my background with parents as teachers meant I was familiar with the human side of education. When a speaker from Hampshire College visited during by junior year at St. Lawrence, I experienced an epiphany: ‘This is what I am meant to do!’”

Q: What has been your most important learning experience?

A: “Within the field of education my most important and exciting experiences involved discovering the works of Abraham Maslow. I wrote a paper comparing his work with Zen Buddhism while I was a religion major. This evolved into creating my own major, Human Development, which combined education, psychology, and sociology. At the time psychology was focused on behaviorism and what I call “rat psychology”. I had no interest in that but was extremely excited about the emerging field of humanistic psychology, intrinsic motivation, cognition, and child development.

The sense of autonomy and self-sufficiency I learned throughout my experiences has been so valuable. I have a sense that I can figure out just about anything. I also learned that discomfort and unpleasantness can be endured. Sometimes we just need patience and hope.”

Q: Why are you passionate about learning and education?

A:Part of my interest has to do with the ever-changing nature of a child and trying to puzzle out good ways to help a child grow in character and intellect. Some people design software, others investigate diseases, and others express themselves through the arts. My kick is seeing a child become happier, more autonomous, and more competent. There’s nothing better for me than seeing a person get excited about a new area of interest whether it’s writing poetry, exploring graphs of parabolic equations, or debating solutions to climate change.”

Q: What are you working on learning right now?

A: “The rather prosaic path I am now on is to find how to create multiple learning venues for public education. The Mandala School is very successful in terms of helping children develop into healthy, curious learners but it suffers from finding resources to fund it. I want to find the key people who can change legislation to open up the variety of educational possibilities to all children.                   

My personal interests always include finding ways to enhance children’s lives. I just finished

Peter Gray’s Free to Learn, an important book about play, childhood, and the importance of self-directed activities. His thinking resonates with my own philosophy that we have to give children many opportunities to be on their own and with their multi-aged friends. Dr. Gray speaks directly to our current culture of fear, restriction, and supervision. Such an atmosphere is a danger to our future.”

Q: Kids are growing up in a very different landscape now, in terms of technology and many other things. What do you think they need that they’re not currently getting?

A:Despite access to amazing amounts of technology, many students cannot create or use a database or spreadsheet programs. They tend not to publish to the larger world about their thoughts and research. They are wonderful consumers of entertainment and information but few of them do much creating. They are at the risk of being too passive. Our schools need a culture of creativity and communication so we can address the problems of today and debate them.”

Q: Any final thoughts?

A:From the youngest to the oldest citizens we need to encourage the practice of democratic thinking and problem solving. This is much more than simply voting on decisions. People need extensive experience with civil discourse where differing opinions are offered and considered.”

Do you have or know kids who “learn by doing”? Who are creative and intelligent yet struggle to stay engaged in traditional classroom settings? Or maybe kids who are just excited to explore new things? So do the facilitators and staff of Learning Choices Network; and that’s where the Best of Buffalo Urban Immersion program comes in.

Here’s how you can connect with the kind of learning opportunities Dr. John and the Learning Choices Network are making available in our community: