Teach Like a Boy Scout (or waitress) — The WEDGE Method for Instructing

The Why

Teaching others is the best way to confirm that you actually know something. It’s also a great way to re-cement a skill for yourself. Approaching a topic in a deliberate, thoughtful manner, with enough focus and detail to be able to equip someone else with that knowledge, can have a profound effect on your own ability to do that thing. And, if you find yourself unable to instruct, it’s a good indicator that you’re not as familiar with the topic as you think. Teaching helps you to approach something that you already know well with a fresh set of “beginner’s eyes.” Some instruction models work better than others. I discovered my favorite instruction model at an IHOP.

The What

Several years ago, when my kids were much younger, their babysitter got a summer job as a waitress at an IHOP. On her first day of full waitressing, we went there for breakfast, to see her at her new job. After our meal, she mentioned that she was really excited to be “fully” in to the job and through the training. I asked her, “So, Meghan, how do you learn how to be a waitress here?” And she said “Well, first there’s a classroom session you have to do. Then you follow another waitress around while she works, and she explains what she’s doing and why. Then, she follows you around while you work, and gives you feedback. Then, after all that, you get to go do it without anybody looking over your shoulder.”

I left from breakfast that morning a changed man. It dawned on me that this was a GREAT process for teaching anything

  • Take them through the information from top to bottom
  • Have them observe someone doing the activity directly
  • Closely monitor while they do the job with supervision
  • Determine when they’ve mastered the process enough to do it themselves and then let them

I started using this at work. It would go like this:

  • Explain how to run a project progress meeting
  • Have someone observe me doing one, then debrief afterwards on specific things I did during the meeting and why.
  • Give the new person a chance to do it with me in the room. Give feedback afterwards. Repeat as needed
  • Let them start running project progress meetings solo.

I called it, for lack of a better name, “The waitress model.”

A few years down the road, my older son graduated from Cub Scouts to Boy Scouts. One of his earliest requirements was to use something called the “EDGE method” to teach someone else how to tie a square knot. I had no idea what the “EDGE method” was, so I looked it up in his handbook.

AND THERE WAS MY WAITRESS MODEL AGAIN!

EDGE stands for:

  • Explain
  • Demonstrate
  • Guide
  • Enable

I think you can make the connection between the steps I laid out above, and this mnemonic. This is the framework in which ALL instruction happens inside of Scouts, whether it’s the scouts doing the instruction, an adult leader, or even during adult leader training.

Any time you want to teach somebody a new skill, this is an invaluable framework to use, for a few reasons –

  1. Training isn’t complete until somebody can show they can do the skill independently
  2. It forces you, as the instructor, to think through the entire process — and not only to explain it, but to do it with mastery yourself.
  3. The student can be confident that they’re doing it right, because they can compare what they’re doing to not just what they’ve been told, but what they’ve seen and done themselves.

So, I started referring to this as the EDGE method at work, because that sounded more professional than “the waitress model”. But, really, it’s the same process.

We use the EDGE method for teaching “Nap Safely” to adult scout leaders, too.

From EDGE to WEDGE

More recently, I’ve realized that there was a piece missing at the beginning of this framework, because it starts with Explain, which is really the “What” portion of training. But in a lot of cases, the reason for developing the skill or mastering the content gets left out. Sometimes the instructor is so deep in the topic at hand they forget that not everybody loves it as much as they do — whether it’s dutch oven cooking (Why? because you can make more interesting camping meals than on a stovetop!) or react.js (Why? Because it simplifies the interaction and predictability of DOM and code interactions, and is easier to scale and grow than two-way binding frameworks are). This led me to start adding a zero step to my instruction, which I called “Why” — as in, “Make sure the students know why this skillset is valuable and worth mastering.”

So now it’s the WEDGE method –

  • Why
  • Explain
  • Demonstrate
  • Guide
  • Enable

I tell my scouts it means “I’m going to wedge this information into your brain so you can’t possibly forget it.” Sometimes they laugh at that. Sometimes.

Opportunities

The places where you can use this are virtually endless — you can apply this framework anytime you need to convey a repeatable skill to someone else.

I’ve made use of it to teach:

  • How to give a presentation
  • How to write a professional email
  • How to extend a job offer
  • How to conduct an interview
  • How to probe a client for their real needs
  • How to set up a project plan
  • How to set up a Visual Studio solution
  • How to refactor code to reduce dependencies
  • How to consume and publish NuGet packages
  • How to make estimates
  • How to close a project out
  • How to tie a figure eight on a bight with a double half-fisherman stopper knot
  • And lots of other things too.

Application

The next time you need to teach someone else a skill, use this framework to help you put your material and plan together. Walk through the components, and confirm you can actually do what you want to teach them. Teach yourself how to do it in a mirror. Verbalize every step as you walk through it, as though someone were following along with you. It sounds silly, but it works. If you’re prepared, as an instructor, and can take people through all five phases, you’ll have truly set them up for success in the future.