Instructor or Educator

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  • Friday, 26 February 2016 00:00
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Instructor or Educator: What’s the Difference?

Think of all the terms that are used to describe someone who works in the world of learning: teacher (the most commonly used term), instructor, tutor, demonstrator, professor, educator... The list goes on. In this article I want to explore the distinction between “instructor” and “educator.” Let me begin with a story.

Some time ago, I was at a dinner party in Hong Kong. The host was throwing the party for his wife, who was celebrating a “significant birthday.” No mention was made of her age, but it didn’t take much imagination to deduce that the party had been arranged to celebrate her 50th birthday. I only knew one or two other people at the party, and found myself seated towards the end of the dining table next to a pleasant younger woman who looked Chinese but spoke with a British accent. During the course of the evening, I learned that she was in fact Malaysian-Chinese but had been brought up and educated in England. We then found ourselves in a three-way conversation with the man sitting across who asked her what she did.

“I’m a teacher,” she replied.

“Oh, really, what do you teach?”

“I teach young people.”

The questioner looked surprised. Clearly, he had expected our dining companion to identify herself in terms of her subject specialization, such as “I teach mathematics” or “I teach geography.” He then proceeded to quickly change the subject. Later, when dinner was over and we were on the terrace having coffee, I returned to the brief conversation I had overheard at the dinner table. “So what subject do you teach?” I asked. “Well, English is the subject,” she replied, “but I consider myself a teacher of young people first and a language teacher second.”

Our conversation was interrupted by one of the other guests, who had been sitting at the other end of the table, an Englishman, who was introduced as the woman’s husband. Their driver was waiting for them and he said that they had to go, so I never had a chance to tell her that she should think of herself as an educator rather than a teacher.

For most people, the terms “teacher,” “instructor” and “educator” are synonymous. Educator is a fancier and more pretentious term for the classroom practitioner. Certainly most dictionaries see the terms as synonymous. Checking the term for myself, my dictionary states that an educator is a person who provides instruction or education, a teacher. Let’s put aside the circularity of the definition — “an educator is someone who provides education” — and examine the concepts more closely.

If you ask a person on the street (in other words, a layperson) what it means to teach, he or she is likely to reply, “It means to show or to explain to someone how to do something, you know, to pass on information that the other person doesn’t have, or to teach them certain skills, such as how to read or how to drive a car.” (I know this is the likely reaction, because over the years I’ve asked plenty of non-teachers [people who don’t teach for a profession] what it means ‘to teach.’)

This view of teaching is known as “transmission” teaching because one person (the “knower”) is passing on, or transmitting, information to someone else who doesn’t know about the content. In schools, there are people who are masters of certain content knowledge — mathematics, science and the like — who are paid to pass this content on to those who don’t possess it. They’re known as teachers or instructors.

I would argue that this is a very limited view of the art and craft of teaching. In the first place, the “transmission” view is a poverty-stricken one. The mind of the child is not an empty vessel waiting to have information poured into it. In fact, research has demonstrated that for learners of any age, a lecture is one of the least effective means of bringing about learning. Educators, who take a broader view, have always known this. Over 2,000 years ago, the philosopher Socrates, possibly the first of the great educators, said, “Education is not the filling of a vessel, but the lighting of a flame.” In fact, the English word education is derived from the Latin word educare, which means “to draw out,” or to work with what learners already know, to shape, refine and develop that knowledge, and to build bridges between what they already know and what they need to learn.

Consequently, having a deeper and richer understanding of the processes of learning than is implied in the transmission model, educators see themselves as responsible for the development of the whole child. They are concerned not only with the cognitive and intellectual development of the children they teach, but also with their emotional, social, aesthetic and moral development. This is a major challenge as well as an awesome responsibility. An educator is one who sees their primary responsibility not as pouring content into children, but as creating opportunities for learning to occur. tj

The complete article can be found in Issue #277 of the Tokyo Journal. Click here to order from Amazon.


Written By:

David Nunan

Tokyo Journal columnist Dr. David Nunan is a former president of the TESOL International Association, the world's largest language teaching organization and the world's leading textbook series author. Vice-President for Academic Affairs and Dean of the Anaheim University Graduate School of Education, David is a world-renowned linguist and best- selling author of English language teaching textbooks for such publishers as Cambridge University Press, Oxford University Press and Thomson Learning. His English language teaching textbook series Go For It is the largest selling textbook series in the world with total sales exceeding 2.5 billion books. David has been involved in teaching graduate programs for prestigious institutions like the University of Hong Kong, Columbia University, the University of Hawaii, the Monterey Institute for International Studies, and many more.


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