Russell Tytler

Can humans and machines co-exist in education? And read on to discover why STEM matters

Here is another of our intermittent blogs during the #AARE2022 conferenceIf you want to cover a session at the conference, please email to check in. Thanks!

Sarah Langman, PhD candidate , Institute for Learning Sciences and Teacher Education (ILSTE), Australian Catholic University (ACU), writes:

The fifth concurrent session in Politics and Policy in Education was abuzz with thoughts and questions contemplating the complex relationship between humans and machines and the broader impacts of this tension on policy. These papers reflected largely on the conditions that are created when we combine machinic and human sensibilities in a typically social space, like education.

First, Dr Carlo Perotta from Monash University shared his thoughts around the consequences and considerations of educational responsibility in the age of automation. Carlo explained that the intensification of reductive tendencies as a direct result of the prevalence of quantitative logics has led to algorithms becoming a central part of governance in schooling systems. He shared how we are witnessing a growing number of educational processes being “offloaded” onto private tech companies. Amazon Web Services was used as an example of this delegation, showing how their business literature invites this offloading of responsibility from schools to these technical delegates.

Of particular interest in this presentation was the conceptualisation of harms within automated processes, which often become intertwined with professional expertise. Misplaced trust can lead to errors which have tangible real-life consequences that can be enormous for both teachers and students. While these harms can be unintended, they are still harms nonetheless that need to be weighed up alongside the perceived benefits of automated processes. Carlo concluded his presentation on a positive note, reiterating the role of critical researchers is to entertain possibilities for positive impact, a positionality that is often hard to grapple with in the face of desire for resistance. 

Next, Professor Kalervo (Kal) Gulson from the University of Sydney reflected on the culmination of four years of thinking around the connections between mobility, artificial intelligence (AI) and education policy. He connected his research with his fundamental passion for geography to explain central problems of understanding AI in terms of where it is made, how this policy knowledge “moves” and how it can fundamentally change policy implementation. Kal referenced his work on synthetic governance from his latest book Algorithms of Education (2022) with fellow authors Sam Sellar and P. Taylor Webb to ask the vital question, what does policy mobility look like when there are human and non-human actors? 

Inspired by the work of Paul Rabinow, Kal grounded his theory in ethnographic work to see how researchers can co-create concepts and problems experimenting with non-traditional methodologies in other contexts. He pointed to the role of EdTech in producing and reproducing new figures and data that become educational in the sense that they change the way schools govern and operate. Like Carlo, Kal concluded his presentation with the hopeful stance that data science can be drawn on to answer enduring problems surrounding sociology of education that have long remained wicked and unanswerable problems. 

This session was also accompanied by a presentation by Dr Elise Hunkin from La Trobe University. Elise highlighted the discursive and material changes that happened in the early childhood space as a case study of pandemic-induced policy discourses. She too highlighted tensions in policy, with regard to federal responsibilities around childcare and state responsibilities around schools. This ultimately creates a messy in-between space, not dissimilar to the tensional space created between machine and human relationships. 

There was an obvious synergy between the papers, with presenters making connections with one another’s work, demonstrating both excellent engagement with the broader field as well as the necessity of this work. What was most encouraging about this session was the turn towards hopeful provocations in and around technology even in the midst of criticality. This positionality is difficult to grapple with in the face of the rhetoric of doom and gloom, but also necessary to forge ahead and think about the future possibilities of education when human and machine collide.

Ben Zunica, secondary mathematics educator and researcher in the Sydney School of Education and Social Work at the University of Sydney, writes on the STEM sessions:

1st talk – Tech-Oriented Learning in Integrated STEM Education – Dr Farha Sattar and Dr Muhammad Nawaz

STEM education is important for young people in the job market. Students need to be able to use technology and this talk was centred around how to use technology well in teacher pedagogy. STEM supports problem solving and critical analysis. STEM education needs to not only integrate its component disciplines, but also integrate learning skills, literacy skills and life skills. How do you bring all the STEM disciplines together, with the other skills that were brought up earlier.

Technology can be used to help bring the STEM disciplines together. Technologies like drones, AR, VR can be useful but there is some difficulty in their effective use in the classroom. Ideas were given about how teachers can use these technologies effectively to reach their goals of integrating STEM disciplines. For example, using drones to help teach geometry. Several applications were given as a help to engage students in STEM education, for example, Google Earth and z-space are useful for engaging in the learning of natural sciences. 

A range of technologies are available, from basic to quite sophisticated and a range of applications to STEM learning were discussed to help students develop 21st century skills that are needed for jobs of today.

2nd Talk – Professional regeneration of Out-of-Field teachers of Mathematics and Science – Prof. Russell Tytler, Dr Peta White, A/Prof. Linda Hobbs, A/Prof. Julianne Lynch, Dr John Cripps Clark

There are issues with many teachers that are teaching maths and science even though they are not qualified. The government is becoming increasingly concerned about this problem and decided that they would partner with Universities to fast-track out of field teachers to become teachers of Maths and Science through a graduate certificate course.

The course is focused on content knowledge and PCK. It is fully funded to allow teachers to do the study for the equivalent of 1 day per week. The team asked the questions about the challenges that were faced and how could this inform system wide reform. The findings show that maths in particular was being taught by out of field teachers most commonly. There were some challenges for teachers in the program – school support was sometimes problematic, along with teaching and learning culture, and personal challenges, such as the busyness of life and considerable school responsibilities.

The course has been challenging for many participants but as time goes by it seems they are becoming more used to how the course was shaped. There was some clash of cultures between traditional practices and what was presented in the course. There has been some success – 240 teachers are now re-trained and there has been much positive commentary on the program from those taking the course, the challenge now is to make it work seamlessly with schools.

What to do when our schools run out of the teachers they urgently need

When faced with a teacher shortage, often schools need to ‘make do’ and ask teachers to teach away from their area of expertise in order to staff classes. That’s called teaching out-of-field and sometimes teachers, put in that position, can feel unsupported and overwhelmed.

The issue of teaching ‘out-of-field’ persists in Australia and internationally –  and has for some time. Out-of-field teaching refers to when teachers teach subjects they are not ‘qualified’ (or specialised) to teach (Weldon, 2016; Hobbs), that is, they do not have the undergraduate study recognised by the state registration/accreditation body nor the teaching methods. 

The question of suitability of a teacher to teach a subject or group of students can be a tricky one in schools. Quality teaching can occur when teachers have gathered expertise over time to teach a subject even when they do not have the relevant ‘qualification’. However, teachers with qualifications or specialisations and a background in the latest teaching methods for the subject are more likely to provide quality teaching.

Faced with an inadequate teacher supply, how do schools address this problem?

In Victoria, the State Government has committed funds to the Secondary Science and Mathematics Initiative (SMSI). We at Deakin have been contracted to design and deliver graduate certificates in secondary mathematics and science. The courses are being delivered online because of COVID restrictions through intensives and offer a mix of content and discipline-specific pedagogy. Supports are provided for teachers as they are challenged to return to study and complete the course while continuing to teach in their schools.  

Teachers from Government schools who are teaching out-of-field in mathematics or science are funded to undertake the graduate certificates. This ‘upskills’ them, makes them qualified, and therefore no longer ‘out-of-field’ but ‘in-field’. 

Why are upskilling programs like the Victorian SMSI important?

1. Research shows that teaching is a ‘learning profession’, where teachers are constantly undergoing professional development, often want to be challenged to try new things by learning ‘on-the-job’ and want to have some agency as to how their career progresses (Hobbs, 2020). Research also shows that teachers who have a background in a subject often lead to better outcomes for their students (Shah, Richardson & Watt, 2020). Some research has shown quite negative impacts for some students and teachers when teachers are given teaching duties beyond their fields of expertise (Du Plessis, Gillies & Carrol, 2014). 

Teachers can feel as if they are in a holding pattern until they can teach what they are passionate about (Hobbs, 2020) and teacher confidence and expertise can be challenged. Students can feel unsupported, and student achievement can be negatively impacted.    

2. Teachers generally feel valued when they are remunerated and recognised for professional learning (Hobbs & Törner, 2019). It is essential funded Government initiatives, university programs, or subject association initiatives deliver outcomes for teachers and schools that make a difference in the classroom and in the professional lives of teachers. The SMSI will focus on contemporary science or mathematics pedagogy, knowledge and practice as integrated, and will be firmly based in teacher practice. The design of the courses and funding arrangements acknowledge the busy lives of teachers and attempts to support schools as they release their teachers. 

3. Upskilling programs specifically designed for out-of-field teachers are not common, although they are available at some universities (e.g., University of Melbourne [], Queensland University of Technology []) and sometimes through professional associations as professional development programs. 

Often teachers receive no recognition or renumeration for undertaking additional qualifications. Therefore, there is little culture of formally upskilling by teachers in some states and territories. Also, research shows that teachers tend to prefer to undertake professional development in their in-field subject (Hobbs, Campbell, Delaney, Speldewinde and Lai, 2020).

The New South Wales teacher accreditation system is such that teachers gain approval to teach subjects when graduating from initial teacher education. These approvals can be updated as teachers undertake studies and meet the requirements for additional subjects. Victoria, however, has no similar mechanism as teachers are registered as ‘teachers’. As with other states and territories in Australia, teachers are required to undertake professional development to renew their registration, although most teachers will choose their in-field subject as the focus of this development. Thus, the value of the SMSI is that funding is provided for teachers to undertake the Graduate Certificate and schools are renumerated for having their teachers out of the classroom while studying. This incentive is needed for teachers to see that the benefits outweigh the costs.

How will a program like SMSI create change?

Two ways. 

  1. The first relates to the fact that the Victorian State Government (like the Tasmanian State Government in 2015) is funding teachers (especially from rural areas) to gain qualifications in out-of-field subjects. This illustrates that there is formal acknowledgement that out-of-field teaching occurs, that it needs to be attended to, and that schools and teachers need to be supported through funding in order to build the pedagogical and content-related expertise. The Victorian Government has applied this strategy with the STEM Catalyst program and the Primary Mathematics and Science Specialists (PMSS) program, illustrating a commitment to upskilling teachers in the ‘STEM’ areas [].
  1. Secondly, such acknowledgement and commitment will have the effect of generating conversation around the ‘out-of-field’ issue more broadly. Whole of system engagement is required, including those responsible for setting policy, school leaders who enact policy, teacher/discipline/principal associations that inform policy and curriculum.  Additionally, teacher unions that represent and protect the rights of educators and school leaders, and universities and academics who provide teacher-ready candidates and support teachers and schools with professional development and research must be engaged.

Change can be created through a national conversation about:

  • system pressures and mechanisms for responding to the issue of teacher distribution, teacher supply and school leadership practices that lead to out-of-field teaching;
  • our expectations for our teachers and schools in terms to teacher ‘qualifications’ versus ‘experience’;
  • developing school practices that minimise the need for out-of-field teaching, and assesses and reduces the potential risk implicated in teaching out-of-field; 
  • how to present this issue to the public; and
  • the data needed to monitor who is teaching what and under what circumstances.

Ultimately, upskilling teachers is one response. The challenge now is for all relevant stakeholders to work together to develop strategies with coordinated actions that demonstrate how Victoria and Australia can lead the world in responding to this pervasive issue. 

Declaration: Deakin University has been contracted to provide the Graduate Certificates in science [] and mathematics  [ ] and will do so alongside a rich research program that will evaluate the participating teachers’ experiences throughout their qualification.

From left: Associate Professor Linda Hobbs is a Science and STEM educator and has researched in the area of out-of-field teaching for over 12 years. Professor Russell Tytler is Alfred Deakin Professor of Science Education at Deakin University, and has published widely on student and teacher learning, and interdisciplinarity in STEM. Dr Peta White is a science and environmental education senior lecturer at Deakin University with research interests including science and biology education; sustainability, climate change, and environmental education; and collaborative/activist research. Dr Jill Brown is a mathematics educator and researcher and Course Director of the Graduate Certificate Secondary Mathematics


Du Plessis, A. E., Gillies, R. M., & Carroll, A. (2014). Out-of-field teaching and professional development: A transnational investigation across Australia and South Africa. International Journal of Educational Research, 66, 90-102. 

Hobbs, L. (2020). Learning to teach science out-of-field: A spatial-temporal experience. Journal of Science Teacher Education. Published online 29 Jan 2020 

Hobbs, L. & Quinn, F. (2020). Out-of-field teachers as learners: Influences on teacher perceived capacity and enjoyment over time. European Journal of Teacher Education, DOI: 10.1080/02619768.2020.1806230  Published online: 01 Sep 2020. 

Hobbs, L. & Törner, G. (2019b). The out-of-field phenomenon: Synthesis and taking action. In L. Hobbs & G. Törner (Eds.), Examining the Phenomenon of “Teaching Out-of-field”: International Perspectives on Teaching as a Non-specialist (pp. 309-321). Dordrecht: Springer. 

Shah, C., Richardson, P., Watt, H. (2020). Teaching ‘out of field’ in STEM subjects in Australia: Evidence from PISA 2015, GLO Discussion Paper, No. 511, Global Labor Organization (GLO), Essen.