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Making heavy weather of children's needs

My mother boasted long and often about the competitive spirit that reigned in her neighbourhood when she was a young married woman.

Not for her the quest for a sylph-like figure at aerobics class, nor the mastery of the intricate steps required for line-dancing. No. Competition in those days, and I'm talking about almost half a century ago, was simple. Who could have their washing out on the line earliest in the morning?

In the row of terraced houses, drying laundry billowed a message to the world. A neat row of blue-white nappies and sheets pegged on the line before 8 o'clock in the morning was regarded as a triumph of motherhood, wifehood and womanhood.

One rectangle of compressed chemicals added to the tumble-dryer will never capture the clean smell of new blown sheets being folded across a small and spotless red-tiled scullery, no matter how cleverly the advertisements try to recreate outdoor freshness.

More worrying still is that because of all our advances, I don't possess a single clothes-peg. What happens if there is a prolonged power-cut? Can I resort to an alternative technology? When you consider it, a clothes-peg is quite an intricate piece of technology in itself. Not everyone might understand how it works. In fact a fair knowledge of basic physics is required - something to do with forces and applied energy.

Back in the old days everyone knew how to use one. My mother didn't need a diagram. She didn't even recognise the skill. What she used was a mixture of necessity and pride. Her standard of whiteness was very white and her knowledge of weather conditions scant, but sure. My question is: "Does making something complicated help people to understand and use it?" Do we, for example, need layer upon layer of programmes of study to help us appreciate what children need to learn? Do we have to wade through sheets of guidance materials and divide into detailed sections the knowledge, skills and understanding required for children to be educated?

Have we turned the art of teaching and the creative process of learning into a mapped, complicated diagram of advanced physics? Is it too late to go back to a naive dependence on knowledge of children and their needs in education? Or am I just being nostalgic?

Marnie Orr is an advisory teacher in Northern Ireland

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