School Improvement Episode 11: Out-of-field teaching

Thank you for downloading this podcast from Teacher magazine – I'm Rebecca Vukovic.

Out-of-field teaching is a part of the Australian school system, mostly through necessity but sometimes by design. That's what three Deakin University academics ­– Dr Linda Hobbs, Associate Professor Coral Campbell and Associate Professor Colleen Vale – have found while researching the issue of out-of-field teaching. They've looked closely at teachers' experiences of being out-of-field and changes to their practice and identity over time. The academics recently shared their work at a visit to the Australian Council for Educational Research offices in Melbourne. In today's School Improvement podcast, we'll be sharing some highlights from their presentation. But to kick things off, we heard from Colleen Vale, who explained more about the Australian Research Council project they've been working on and the three lines of inquiry she's been following.

Colleen Vale: Our ARC [Australian Research Council] project has three focuses – on teacher learning and identity, teacher practice and school context. It's a three year project, every year we've been conducting individual interviews with out-of-field teachers, we've had group interviews with the teacher and a mentor (where they've had them) and I have to say in some of our schools they don't always have one so we haven't been able to do that. We have an individual video stimulated interview about their teaching practice. So they video a lesson – an in-field lesson and an out-of-field lesson – and we then talk about that in terms of their beliefs and practices. And we've also had interviews with the leadership team around the context of the school.

Today we're going to talk about three lines of inquiry that we're following through. One is teachers' mathematical beliefs, the second is mathematical learning and identity changes and the influence of context.

So, mathematical beliefs for out-of-field teachers. One of the things that's interesting about this is that we tend to be focussing on teacher quality a lot and thinking about their knowledge of content and pedagogical content knowledge and that's important. But one of the things we know is that their beliefs about the discipline, their beliefs about teaching the discipline and their beliefs about how people learn that discipline are very dialogically related to the actual practice in the classroom. And so we need to be considering not just their knowledge, we need to also be considering their beliefs.

… When we looked at our teachers at the beginning of our study (and this is just the beginning and we're going to be tracking these through), what we notice is that most of our teachers in the study think the discipline of mathematics is all about facts, rules and skills. And this typically comes from out-of-field teachers, because your beliefs are based on your own experiences to start with, so they're recalling their experiences of learning, in this case mathematics. And we're finding that our in-field teachers are more likely to have alternative views. A lot of our teachers though, when they're thinking about how do we want to teach, they really do want to do something for the students at the individual student level so hence the learner focused one, but it's not necessarily an autonomous learning or a problem solving approach, it might be differentiation or targeted teaching or something like that …

RV: We then heard from Dr Linda Hobbs, who spoke about the idea of transition for early career teachers. Here, she explores some of the unique challenges early career teachers face, particularly when they are working out-of-field.

Linda Hobbs: The next line of inquiry looks at the transition idea for early career teachers. So where you have an experienced teacher who has been teaching for a long time, they suddenly get VCAL [Victorian Certificate of Applied Learning] Maths or VCAL Numeracy in their load and there's a big change for them. They know how to teach, they know how to deal with students, they know how to handle the various things associated with the task of teaching. Whereas an early career teacher faces a very different challenge.

And so what we're trying to do in this ARC [project] is to look at this notion of transition from moving into the teaching space and what happens for them during that time as they learn to teach out-of-field, while learning to teach. And some research that is sort of a ‘sister' research to this, we've been able to track teachers across three or four years and just look at the things that are changing for them. There are four things that are … changing.

The first thing is the positioning – how they position themselves, their identity changes and how that relates to their role. So the notion of ‘role' becomes much more meaningful, it's not just this thing where they walk in there and they're trying to establish themselves, they actually get a sense of what it means to be a teacher. And they're trying out a provisional identity, an identity that they've constructed for themselves and then they go and see how it goes and then they shift it, change it, depending on what experiences, what feedback they get from people around them etcetera …

… Agency is very important. Obviously early career teachers, when they go into teaching they don't have a great deal of agency in terms of control over what they do, the way they teach and certain decisions, and so over time they are assuming more control over what they teach and how they teach, although sometimes allocation is never really in the control of any teacher. We're very aware of that. But often you have very experienced teachers who they'll take the senior classes before any of the junior teachers.

The next is continuity so they're establishing continuity across subjects. The notion of continuity ties back to that notion of discontinuity that we mentioned before … but when you're out of field, the boundaries literature talks about discontinuity but then you are outside of your area of expertise, the field is different, it creates discontinuity for you for some reason. So it's not actually just the fact you're teaching out of field, but the fact that there is some problem, there are some issues that you're dealing with. And so over time you actually establish this continuity, the boundaries become permeable, in that there's not so much discontinuity that you're experiencing, you're beginning to see what boundary objects you can use to move across the different subject areas.

So, for example, a teacher might use the design process as a boundary object as they move from the science classroom, they take that into a textiles classroom for example (which is one of our teachers). So that design process makes that boundary crossing doable for them. They can work with that and so over time, there's this notion of disruption. Disruption is not a bad thing, as we know, but it's a matter of how that disruption … the effect of it. Whether it is totally demoralising or if it's that opportunity for learning.

And then the last one is expertise, so the nature of the knowledge and beliefs. Over time they become clearer, the knowledge that they need to know becomes clearer, they forget the things that they don't need to know anymore – one of my teachers talked about that the other day – so their knowledge is becoming more complex, refined, experience-informed, the knowledge of the task is clearer.

RV: We then heard from Coral Campbell who spoke about school culture and the impact it has on beginning teachers when they first begin out-of-field teaching. When looking at school culture, she explored several different things including leadership practices, teacher interactions, supporting and resourcing, timetabling, the agency of teachers and more. Here, she shares a specific example of one school's unique approach to out-of-field teaching.

Coral Campbell: So I'm talking about one particular school that I was at and this school had a program which was called FUSE. The program ran between Years 7-9 and the students were allocated to these ‘pods' of quite large groups. The school was built about six years ago but it was built with large open areas and they would place 60-70 students in this pod and assign four teachers. So at Year 7 I think they have maybe three pods for the Year 7 group, three or four for Year 8 and 9, but those 70 students would be taught by the same four teachers the whole time. And the way they set it up was that they would have a science, maths, English and humanities teacher. They would have defined lessons in science, maths, humanities and English but that was, say, for two hours of the day and the rest of the day the students would come together as a large group and do tasks from any of the areas, so there was a lot of student autonomy around what they were choosing to do. In that time when the students were all together, the four teachers would be there. And if a student was working on a maths problem but the maths teacher wasn't available, that student could ask the English teacher or the humanities teacher – so all the teachers had to know what was happening with all of the curriculum areas.

When we looked at the culture, what we found was that in general the leadership allowed teacher choice in allotment. So, as these young teachers came into the school, they were happy to take maths if they felt comfortable with it, they had some choice then in what they did in their senior areas.

The teacher interactions and relationships – they had critical friends or mentors assigned in their first year, but because of the arrangement where the teachers all sat in one office space, they actually tended to bounce ideas off each other. So the idea of a critical friend or mentor was less important to them, and by the second year they didn't have one established. So they had moved past the idea of a mentor. The actual structure of the pod allowed this idea of resourcing, sharing of resources, sharing of ideas and of course the attitudes and structures around PD. They were strongly supported for PD, but what they found was that many of them said that although they felt they needed PD in their out-of-field areas, they felt uncomfortable going to a designated PD in their out-of-field areas because they felt that they knew so much less than the other teachers that were there ...

… I went to a leadership meeting at the school I had just two weeks ago and I put this to the [principals]. I said, ‘these are the things you need to do to support your out-of-field teachers' and I actually got them to do a checklist about whether they did ‘it all the time', ‘sometimes', whatever. What really came out of that checklist were the two things they didn't do well was ‘providing additional planning time for beginning out-of-field teachers'. So beginning teachers have a small allocation in their first year because they're beginning, but if they were beginning and out-of-field, they didn't get any extra allocation to do out-of-field. And the other one that they didn't do very well at this school was the idea of ‘trade-off for taking an out-of-field area'. So if you're taking something outside of your expertise, could you then be given an in-field area as a trade-off? Or could you be given more time to do PD or things like that? They identified that those two areas were things that they needed to work on.

RV: To conclude the presentation, we return to Linda Hobbs who summarises the findings and discusses what schools can do moving forward.

LH: There is clear evidence that there is teacher learning and developing of teacher beliefs and practices through boundary crossing. Actually it's the way teaching works in Australia. The reality is that in most schools there is out-of-field teaching and in talking with unions and political people and subject associations – actually it's just the way we do things in Australia. But it doesn't have to be that way and, in fact, other countries won't stand for it. …

So it is bifurcated depending on your experience, probably depending on the amount of support that you have. And so that school culture really does impact on [that] individual teacher's journey of developing a position in the school, developing agency over time, things becoming continuous for them and developing expertise ...

… The last thing we want to point out is, do we need a way of thinking about out-of-field teaching? Does there need to be some sort of a strategy to ensure teacher quality, to consider how the systems are involved, what sort of response and where? Is it about how teachers are prepared? Is it about dealing with the teachers that are already in school? And is it about getting more teachers in? So there are sort of three ways of dealing with it.

A key point for me is resisting putting the locus of change only on the teacher. There are other people involved [here] that also need to be thinking about their part in dealing with it. It's not just a teacher issue.

There are new curriculum and teacher collaboration models arising in schools – STEM, in particular, is one that is going to mean teachers are out-of-field. How do we deal with that? What do we think about that? Is it part of what we do? Is it an opportunity for learning? In which case, what sort of conditions do they need for that to be an opportunity for learning?

That's all for this episode – to keep listening or to download all of our podcasts for free visit or You can also check out the full transcript of this podcast and related reading at where, of course, you can also access the latest articles, videos and infographics.

Related reading

Weldon, P.R. (2016). Out-of-field teaching in Australian secondary schools. (Policy Insights ; n.6). Melbourne : Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER)

Earp, J. (2016, August 25). Infographic: Out-of-field teaching. Teacher. Retrieved from

This transcript was edited on 3 August 2017 to reflect the fact that the first speaker in the podcast is Colleen Vale and not Coral Campbell as originally stated. Coral Campbell is the third speaker. Teacher apologises for the error.

As a school leader, how are you supporting staff to teach a subject they haven’t specialised in? Do you provide additional planning time for out-of-field teachers? What about beginning teachers who are also being asked to teach out-of-field?

As an experience in-field teacher, how are you supporting less experienced colleagues who may be teaching out-of-field? Are you willing to share your ideas and resources?