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How We Teach

Teaching EDGE

This is the second post in a 4-part series about how we learn. In the first post, I specifically discussed the four steps that everyone goes through when learning something new. To recap, they are:

  1. Unconscious incompetence: You don't know what you don't know
  2. Conscious incompetence: You understand what you don't know and want to learn
  3. Conscious competence: You start to understand, with effort
  4. Unconscious competence: You internalize your understanding and no longer have to thing about it. You just "get it."

In this post, I am going to discuss how to teach students at each step of the process. The techniques used will vary, depending on where a given student is. Please note, you don't have to be a professional teacher to understand and use these techniques. Whether you are a teacher, a parent, a manager, or even a student yourself, understanding these techniques can make you better at what you do.

The Boy Scouts of America are widely known as an organization that is expert at teaching practical skills to millions of boys, using mostly volunteers with very little training. They do that by using the teaching methods I am going to describe here. It's called EDGE.

EDGE is an acronym that stands for Explain, Demonstrate, Guide, and Enable. Each of these represents a specific teaching style, applied in order to students learning a new topic. It's not a coincidence that there are four steps, and each one aligns perfectly with the four steps of the learning process.


When students are on Step 1, Unconscious Incompetence, they don’t know what they don’t know. It’s up to you Explain everything to them. If the material is brand new, you cannot assume that they will have even basic knowledge of the subject. Everything needs to be spelled out. You should avoid acronyms, especially ones that are specific to subject being taught. Explaining the subject moves the student closer to Step 2, Conscious Incompetence.


Once the subject has been explained, and it appears that the students understand the basics of what's going on, you can move onto Demonstrate. Here you will give a practical demonstration of the topic, skill, or task being taught. Depending on the complexity of the topic, more than one demonstration, along with repeating the explanation for reinforcement, may be necessary. This is Step 2, Conscious Incompetence. They understand what it is they do not know.


Now it’s time to practice. With your help, the student takes a turn exercising the skill or applying the knowledge provided. During this phase, you will carefully Guide the student every step of the way. This step is cyclical, and repetition will almost certainly be required. Continue to explain as needed, and perhaps go back to demonstrating a particular technique. With practice, the student will gradually move to becoming Consciously Competent. The skill won't be automatic yet, but understanding is there.


Once you feel that the student has a solid grasp of the concepts you are teaching, it’s time to back off and give them a little space. You gradually remove your immediate supervision, to Enable the student to master the subject. One way to do that is to have the student informally teach someone else the same topic or skill. Teaching others reinforces those concepts and helps move the individual towards Unconscious Competence.


Let’s look at a real-world example of using EDGE in practice. As I mentioned in my first post, I am currently enjoying the delightful process of teaching my 15-year-old son to drive. EDGE is incredibly valuable here. On a recent lesson, we practiced panic braking. One Saturday morning, we found an empty parking lot behind an office building, and prepared for the lesson.

The first thing I did was Explain to him what we would be doing. We discussed when panic braking would be necessary, and how to do it safely, with and without anti-lock brakes. (Notice I did not assume he knew the acronym ABS.) We talked about how to steer a car while braking, where the driver's attention should be focused, etc.

Once the Explanation was finished, I proceeded to Demonstrate the techniques we discussed. I showed him panic braking from various speeds from 15 to 35 miles per hour.

Then it was his turn. We switched places, and he practiced what I had just demonstrated. I did not simply hand him the keys, get out of the car, and let him drive off. Instead, remained with him to Guide him through the process, answering questions, gently correcting him when necessary, and offering helpful reminders when appropriate.

It would be foolish to assume at this point that my son has totally mastered this skill. I will Enable his progress by providing opportunities for him to continue practicing and gaining confidence.


There are some tactical challenges to be aware of. EDGE works best when there is something tangible to demonstrate and practice. It would be difficult to teach world history using EDGE. You would be hard pressed to get much past Explain and Demonstrate. I am not sure how you Guide someone through a practical history lesson. What is important is to realize that each step in the process reinforces the previous one. The further you and the student can go, the better.

Another potential challenge is that most people do not learn at identical rates. If you find yourself teaching a group, you will quickly discover that they will not all pick it up at the same time. You need to be patient, often repeating steps based on where the student is. That is why understanding the equivalence between EDGE and the steps of learning is key.

A final challenge is that many students, myself included, have a hard time picking up a new concept that has no immediate application in their lives. In other words, some people have a hard time learning just for the sake of learning. As a case in point, I struggled for years to learn how to tie certain Boy Scout knots. This was particularly embarrassing while I was serving as a scoutmaster. On one campout, however, I was given the task of securing our flagpole to another pole. I knew I had to lash the two poles together, but did not know the details. One of the scouts saved me by teaching me, using the EDGE method, how to use a clove hitch and round lashing to secure the two poles together. Once I had a “why,” I was able to master the skill relatively quickly. Round lashings and clove hitches no longer give me any trouble.


Whenever you find yourself teaching someone a new topic or skill, whether formally or informally, your student will certainly go through the steps of the learning process. Being able to recognize which step they are in, and to respond with the appropriate EDGE technique, will make you a more effective teacher. Your students will learn faster and retain the information better. With practice, you may even be able to have your student teach the next student, which serves to reinforce the knowledge in both the student and the teacher.


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