What, in short, does the NTC Learning System programme entail?
The programme is very complex, so it’s easier to explain how it’s carried out. It consists of three phases:
- Stimulating the development of neural connections and pathways (kinesiological activities, dynamic eye accommodation, rotation, rotation, balance, running, eye-hand coordination, exercises to develop fine motor skills, etc.).
- Stimulating the development of thought processes (abstraction, visualisation, thought classification and seriation, associations)
- Stimulating the development of functional thinking (mysterious stories, puzzling questions, enigmatic objects)
How to describe the NTC Programme to a parent?
Each part of the NTC Programme is important, and it helps a child attain their biological potentials. Intelligence does not solely depend on genetic potential, but, primarily, on the number of neural connections formed by the age of seven. It is during the formative period that neural connections form in the most intense and fastest way. The importance of children's play is vast, which is something that parents often forget, and they think that spending three or more hours a day staring into a video game or TV is considered children’s play.
The real game happens when the child thinks, moves around, communicates with other children... It would be good if they could, if possible, spend the summer with their grandparents in the countryside, running in the meadows, making floral wreaths, making up games with other children their age, helping out their grandma and grandpa with rural errands. We must not forget marbles, elastics, hide and seek and other active games. Sticker albums are also worth mentioning, but we have to be careful not to buy 10–20 stickers every day, because that is not good. It’s much better to buy 4-5 stickers a day, so that the child looks forward to the next day and it takes them 2–3 months to complete the album. That is something I often mention to parents, because if we buy a lot of stickers at once, they complete the album in 10–15 days and have no use from it. And that is related to the development of thought classifications, seriations and associations that, in activities such as collecting stickers or paper napkins, last for several months.
It is extremely important to develop thought classification and seriation, because, along with associations, they provide foundation to functional knowledge. Even when we (sometimes inadvertently) decide to include a child in some useful game, it’s usually us, the parents, who spoil it. Moreover, it is important for parents to understand that there are many toys that are of not much use to the children.
A common mistake while travelling, let’s say to the seaside, is to have children watch a movie on a DVD player or let them play a video game. I am a parent too, I know entertaining a 4–5 year old is easer that way, but there are other ways... It would be good for them to speak with other children, learn a joke to make them laugh, guess from which countries are the cars passing by, figure out which cars are from Italy (Fiat, Alfa Romeo...), France (Renault, Peugeot…) etc. Along the way, they can mention something interesting about the countries, because that is what children absorb and then, later, the information can be used to lift the child to a higher level. And an essential advice to parents travelling to the seaside. Make sure the kids are barefoot on the beach, as often as possible, because our children almost never get the chance to walk barefoot. Another problem is the fact that the children almost never walk at all, and that disrupts important physiological mechanisms.
How to identify gifted children and what is important in working with them?
Those are the children who think in associations, their brain works quickly, but unfortunately such a way of thinking and working does not exist in schools. By forcing such children into reproductive learning we lose a lot, because some of them may never get a chance to express their abilities, thus we are all at loss.
Is there a special programme for working with gifted children?
Some serious studies have shown that as many as 30 percent of teachers do not recognise a gifted child. One of the most important reasons for it being the fact that children at school learn according to an outdated system – where repetitive learning and reproductive knowledge are favoured thus making the abilities of gifted children difficult to express. It is known that potentially gifted children (IQ above 148) constitute 2% of the population. However, in reality, there are only 0,3% of them. The inadequate curricula and teaching methods are precisely the reason why instead of having 20 gifted kids in a population of 1,000, there are only 3 of them. So, despite the devastating facts that we “lose” 17 gifted children per a population of 1,000 during education (mostly kindergarten and primary school), and that Serbia ranks among the last in Europe in international knowledge tests (in applicable, functional knowledge) – we are still not changing the learning strategy and increasing functional knowledge of individuals and thus of the entire nation. As soon as we expand the implementation of this, or some other programme that increases functional knowledge, we will have more gifted children. And then, of course, it is up to the government institutions to enable specific work with them, to develop their potentials.
Through the Association of Teachers of Serbia, we launched an initiative to establish a Mensa department for the gifted – Nikola Tesla Centre (NTC), in May 2009 in Belgrade. They will work with gifted children through organising teacher training, camps and various other activities.
What should be done for the kids to reach the maximum of their biological potentials?
It depends on their age. For the early preschoolers, time should be organised so as to enable the children to spend as much time as possible in the nature, playing ball, skipping rope, playing elastics. They need as many games as possible that involve rotating around one’s axis, balance exercises, running, skipping, crawling. Children show the ability to recognise complex abstract symbols (car brands, country flags) at a very early age, but that ability needs to be further developed, through memory games, puzzles and similar.
How much time, in your opinion, should children spend watching TV or computer screens?
My advice for a child up to the age of seven would be to watch educational TV shows and cartoons for one to two hours the most, and to spend up to half an hour or hour a day in front of a computer screen. However, that is a lot too, if the child during the rest of the day doesn’t have enough compensatory activities we teach about at our seminars – motor and graphomotor exercises, developing associative thinking.
What should parents pay attention to?
The programme focuses the responsibility on parents, because their role is crucial and daily. Many parents, not knowingly, prevent proper development of their children, by allowing certain activities. Watching too much TV, playing video games, lack of graphomotor activities, physical inactivity – they damage and undermine the development of certain biological potentials.
The fact is that this period, which represents the foundation the future development of intellectual capacities of any child will depend on, is still not very well researched. Parents inadvertently do the wrong things, not knowing how to optimally stimulate child’s development.
I’ve often had the opportunity to talk to parents who, wanting to protect their child, forbade jumping on the bed, spinning around, bought them snickers with a self-adhesive buckle, so that the child doesn’t have to bother with tying shoelaces – and thus prevented some very useful activities.
Learning disorders may appear as early as in the second or third grade and often arise due to the lack of certain activities in the early childhood. Those are usually the forgotten games, such as jumping, rotation, and, later on, marbles, elastics, hide and seek etc. Those are exactly the activities that encourage proper brain development, as we live in a time when children are mostly static, in front of a TV or a computer.
The scientific knowledge should be conveyed to parents, kindergarten and school teachers, because, in the meanwhile, generations of children are growing up needing valuable help with their development.
What would you change in our educational system, particularly in the kindergartens?
I wouldn’t change much, we only need to add the elements that are proven to affect brain development, that are in accordance with physiology, just an extension to the regular curriculum.
How much do parents influence child’s IQ development, how big is the influence of the environment, society and institutions?
Equally important, but it is the parents who make the first decisions. Later on, the parents’ influence fades and it is taken over by the society and institutions. Everybody has their role to play, i.e. they are all important
A part of the Programme is the development of the ability to reason, analyse, the development of functional knowledge, which is actually the part that children love the most, while it’s the hardest for the teachers. Why is that?
That part of the Programme is in fact a process that requires parallel processing, i.e. processing two things at once, and in associations. For example, what do squid and Shakespeare have in common? That's quite a difficult question, so I make it easer for the seminar participants by asking them what do squid and goose feather have in common.
Then they all say – ink. I’ve just moved the association a bit further from the goose feather, i.e. I mentioned Shakespeare and got a question that few people can answer. Solving questions is stimulative for children, but the problem lies in devising so many questions, because the kids always need new ones. It is sometimes difficult for teachers to come up with new questions every day, thus making this part of the Programme the most demanding.
Could you clarify that a bit, and tell us how to avoid the pitfalls of reproductive learning, in favour of natural, physiological learning process?
That’s relatively easy to understand, if we know that, from physiological point of view, our brain doesn't function as a system of reproduction but as a system of associations. I can support that with a number of arguments, but often have to play with lecture participants to make them understand how the brain actually works.
The only problem is that most people in education think that this is the ideal way of learning, while I explain that the reproductive learning is only a start, i.e. it is good for a child to obtain information about something, to understand a lesson, but then we must switch to a higher level of information processing.
It seems like there has been a substantial increase in the number of children with developmental difficulties lately. Is it just due to more sophisticated diagnostic techniques or is it the modern lifestyle and parenting that encourage developmental disabilities? How can we influence that?
Both – better diagnostics, but also the way of life today affect the appearance of developmental disabilities. The only way we can influence and help is to educate the parents who, with best intentions, often make mistakes and slow down their child’s development or even harm it. Parents make many unconscious mistakes until the age of three or four, and one of them is forbidding the child to spin around, and we now know that rotation helps the development of neural pathways.
Intelligence does not rely solely on genetic potential, but primarily on the number of neural connections formed in early childhood. Why is that formative period the most intense and fastest when it comes to neural connections?
Genetically speaking, people have the most energy at their disposal until the age of five/six, precisely because brain development is the strongest in that period of life. From the biological point of view, the brain is a survival organ, and it is its job to create everything necessary to adapt to living in its environment by the age of four or five. Of course, the development continues, but the most important period ends by the age of five. Another important thing to understand is the analogy in terms of the nervous system.
Living things that do not move do not have nerve cells, while the ones that do, have them. And the most complex nervous system is that of humans and dolphins. Following that analogy, we are living beings made to move, or, more precisely, upright walking made us. Considering that the process lasted for millions of years, it is clear that walking, i.e. moving is a crucial factor in the development of overall abilities. A child must move around, that being an important prerequisite for the overall development of biological abilities, the most intense in the first years of life.
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