New concepts – how difficult can they be to understand?

I recently found myself having to explain something which would have been straightforward enough, had I been talking to another adult. But I was talking to my eight-year-old daughter, and it was more complicated than I could have imagined.

She wanted to take a camera with her on a school trip. She has only ever seen me taking pictures with a Nikon D80 SLR, or with a multitude of different mobile phones – most recently the hugely impressive 41 megapixel Nokia 808 PureView or the Nokia Lumia 900. She hasn’t ever seen photos taken on anything other than a D-SLR or a mobile phone. Indeed, she’s never used anything else herself, but as the rules expressly forbade even old mobile phones without a SIM, she was left wondering what the alternatives were.

The solution I proposed was a disposable camera.

yellowcameraAnd at that moment, I realised I was going to have a lot of explaining to do. Within minutes I found myself struggling with three concepts, new to an eight-year-old:

  • Cameras can be disposable
  • You don’t get to see the picture until much later
  • It is pocketable and takes pictures, but you can’t use it as a phone

All were met with incredulity. A stream of clarifying questions followed:

  • Why would you want to throw it away?
  • How are you supposed to know what the picture looks like if you don’t see it until much later?
  • Where do the pictures go while they’re waiting to come out?
  • Why don’t the pictures just come out earlier?
  • Only 35 pictures? That isn’t enough for a three-day trip. Can’t I just keep taking them?
  • And funniest of all, “we’ve been told we have to take all our rubbish away with us. Does that mean I’ll have to bring the camera home before throwing it away?”

I really struggled to answer some of these. The difficulty I had was that in most cases my answer relied on other, pre-existing knowledge. It was difficult because every last drop of her knowledge (confirmed by her experience) pointed to the total nonsensical nature of my answers. Her thinking was along these lines:

  • You don’t throw cameras away.
  • The whole point of taking pictures is to capture a moment, and that doesn’t make sense if you can’t see that moment until a later date. That would be completely daft. What happens if someone blinks?
  • Chemicals? Chemicals? Why on earth are we even talking about chemicals? We’re talking about capturing a moment right now, looking at it on a screen, and sending it to my friends. We should be talking about computers, screens, tablets, televisions and phones – not chemicals.

Discussing the whole thing made me realise just how hard it can sometimes be to understand new concepts. I was lucky that I could quickly see why this could be so alien to my daughter – it is clear to me that her experiences will make it difficult for her to understand. But it isn’t always that clear – we don’t always know what others understand, and what foundations others have to build on.

Next time you find yourself explaining a completely new concept, tread carefully. Question your assumptions about what the other person already knows. And if you fancy a challenge, try explaining to a young child how a disposable camera works! As a side note, since not all the children took cameras, I’m sure there would have been some interesting conversations about how the camera works. I chuckle at the thought of my daughter “educating” the other children about this. Maybe I’ll ask a few of them to explain it to me 🙂


Feel free to comment on this post – I’d be interested to hear your views.
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