Reflections on Resilience 2

So last week we discussed resilience and how I see The Institute for Enquiring Minds in the great “Resilience Melee”. This week I want to expand on that and move the focus slowly onto building a resilient community. In this part of the project our Mentor group moves into the foreground.

Part of our approach is that we think of poor maths skills as a weakness. It is a weakness that we can mitigate, or repair or completely rebuild. Our Scholarships try to take away a bad thing and replace it with a good thing.

If one of our Scholars is having problems with maths we can help. We can help not only with the specific problem but by doing this we can help Scholars learn methods to tackle other maths problems. In fact we can help develop problem solving skills.

We are building resilient young problem solvers.

We turn a weakness into a strength.

We turn a problem in to the ability to solve problems.

We turn a young person falling out of a community into a young person that is confident in that community.

We give that young person a Mentor, an older person with great skills but one to whom they can relate.

We give that young person a window onto a world where maths is interesting, fascinating and even inspiring.

We are building a self-sustaining resilient community around our resilient young problem solvers.

So to explain the idea that our (one-on-one contact time) Scholarships are the first layer of our practical contribution to resilience let us consider some of our work outside the Scholarships.

This could be split into three layers of increasing mathematical and para-mathematical complexity above out Scholarships. The layer immediately above the Scholarships uses workshops, homework clubs and asynchronous learning resources. This is very useful stuff to consolidate the progress made in the Mentor/Scholar sessions, it is internet based but built on the foundation of real human interaction.

The layer above that includes a lecture series guest speakers from industry, from the creative arts and from academia embodying the excitement of maths with a deliberate focus on successful women in maths related fields. This is more didactic but our Founders, our Mentors and our Scholars are all in here together, listening and learning, discussing and digesting.

The layer above that includes high concept music and art performances and installations with significant mathematical themes. For example The Institute recently put on a performance by two super creative individuals; Prof Arun Ram and concert pianist Michael Leslie contextualising Beethoven’s ground breaking music with the ground-breaking scientific and mathematical activity of the time. Similarly, The Institute has collaborated with artists who worked alongside the academic program in Munich, Germany., radically energizing the workspace. These increasingly applied methods serve to create a community around our Scholars, a community that looks exciting, a community that is not easy to find.

This  community, a sophisticated connected community related to maths, is the second tier of our plan. We open up a fascinating world of maths to the school student. They might have reach a little as school students to process all this. As they get more and more comfortable in maths they will find this subject matter more accessible. The university mathematics student may be pretty comfortable with the increasingly complex subject matter.

The large part of our Mentor Group are University Maths students, aged 18-22. They are living proof that maths is not boring or introspective. They will inspire the school students to improve at maths, to stick at maths and maybe even continue their study in maths. At that point we hope to have ex-Scholars become Mentors and Mentors become senior educators supervising new Mentors. There is a path.

So we are building a multi-layered, multi-textured experience, it is not designed to be consumed immediately, it presents challenges and ideas that require thought, effort, reflection. Our scholars are a part of it all, our mentors are part of it all, our senior educators are part of it and our patrons are too.

Something to investigate. Something to revisit. Something to feel a part of.

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Reflections on Resilience

Resilience. We hear about this all the time. As a medical doctor, as a parent of teenagers, as a Mentor to multiple medical students and junior doctors I can tell you that while I think building resilience is a great thing I know many of my doctors, students and even my children are getting a bit tired of the resilience schtick.

The Institute for Enquiring Minds does build resilience in young people tackling one of the biggest weaknesses in their educational experience.

Mathematics is the Achilles Heel of high school education. The entire experience of mathematics is poor. This is not because our traditional teachers are lacking, it is much more complicated.

Maths skills are essential for success in the modern world. For the vast majority of High School Students when they finish maths at school they will never rejoin the battle. They consider themselves free of maths. In truth they are not free, they are imprisoned. Their maths skills are unlikely to improve and from the moment they walk out of their last class they are trapped at the level of competence they have gained. Any job opportunity requiring a level of maths above theirs is outside their reach, probably forever.

They have a weakness. They have a flaw in their armour. All the generic resilience training in the world will not replace a skill they never attained.

We build resilience by removing that weakness. We dip their heel in the Styx. We focus on one extremely important skill in their greater skill set.

To do this we intervene at several key moments in the stories of our Scholars and Mentors, we focus upon the points where young people get lost. We know where they get lost because we ask them and then we listen to them.

At one end of the spectrum we engage with the young people directly with our Scholarship Program. We give under-resourced disadvantaged students, who do not have the resources to improve their knowledge and attitude towards maths, the opportunity to connect to a community of people who love maths and who apply maths in interesting ways.

The Institute for Enquiring Minds seeks out mathematicians who will have a degree in mathematics and are passionate about their subject and we help them to become a Maths Mentor and give them tailored support from our team of Senior Educators.

We then seek out maths students, usually identified by their own maths teachers, that could do better if only they were inspired. We invite them to apply for a Scholarship and become a Enquiring Minds Scholar.

A Mentor works one-on-one with a Scholar. Mathematics is too often portrayed as a cold, difficult subject only enjoyed and mastered by socially inept geeks. Our Mentors are not like that. When students work one-on-one with a mentor who is passionate about maths they have a positive experience with maths.

The subject matter is maths but the benefits are even broader. The young Scholar turns their previous weakness into a strength. There is a demonstrable way to overcome a major problem. The pattern can be repeated with other difficult problems.

The one-on-one Scholarships are the basic building block of our work improving resilience in young people. However they are but one layer of a multi-layered approach.

I shall expand further on this in my next post.

Doug Lynch


Gender issues in Australian education

Setting the scene

The World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Index (GGI) (e.g. WEF, 2016) measures the gap between men and women with respect to: economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, political empowerment and health and survival. It is often called the “emancipation index” and is a number between 0 and 1 with 1 representing gender equity. In 2016 the top three countries were Iceland, Finland and Norway. Australia was in 46th place. What is particularly concerning is that Australia has barely improved over the last ten years due to a particularly sharp decline in the last two. In the chart below I’ve compared the performance over the last 10 years of Australia (in the gold) and a European “average” (elaborated below).


All stake holders in Australian society should find this chart depressing, those with daughters will find it alarming.

As a mathematician involved in mathematics education I have a particular interest in how Australia measures up with the rest of the world when it comes to the overall mathematical achievement of Australian school children and, just as importantly, the extent of the mathematical gender gap. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) produces a triennial survey (e.g. OECD, 2016), the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), which covers 15-16 year olds worldwide, assessing them in a range of areas including mathematics. In the next chart I present the last 5 years of PISA results for overall maths scores for Australia as compared to the average of the same group of European countries featured in the previous chart. That we have two time series lines per Europe and Australia reflects the fact that I’ve split out girls and boys PISA scores. It will come as no surprise that in both the European and Australian time series the lower line represents the scores of girls.

It’s difficult to find an optimistic reading of this chart. From either a European or Australian perspective the persistence of the gender gap in mathematical performance is worrying. From an Australian point of view the consistency of the overall decline just adds to the sense that we’re headed in the wrong direction. As I’ll discuss later, recent research suggests that these two charts are telling a consistent if disturbing story, that a societal gender gap, appropriately defined, may be related both to poor performance of boys and girls in mathematics as well as to a gender gap in school mathematics. This research provides clues as to how we as a society can improve the outlook for girls in mathematics and their prospects within the wider society. It is also important as it directly refutes some widely held and deeply entrenched positions related to gender difference in mathematics.

The historical and policy context

In 1971 less than a third of students in tertiary education were female. In 1977, an OECD report(see e.g. McInnis, 1996) described Australia as having the “…highest level of occupational segregation by sex of all the countries it studied.” The desperate need to improve the quality of girl’s education was certainly apparent but it wasn’t until 1987 that the Commonwealth Schools Commission published its “National Policy for the Education of Girls in Australian Schools” (CSC, 1987). This policy, which was embraced by both politicians and educators, was founded on admirable values and principles. Noteworthy is the third of these: “Equality of opportunity and outcomes in education for girls and boys may require differential provision, at least for a period of time.” A clear statement of support for the idea that single-sex schooling might be an appropriate tool to tackle the woeful imbalance of the time and one that I’ll return to in light of recent research. The 1987 National policy also stipulated that five years into the Policy’s implementation a comprehensive review would be undertaken to assess progress towards its objectives. That review resulted in the “National Action Plan for the Education of Girls 1993-1997” (AEC, 1993), the purpose of which was to sharpen the focus of the plan laid down in the original Policy by highlighting certain priorities for the Policy’s further implementation. For example, it stressed the importance of “Examining the construction of gender”. This was an explicit acknowledgement of the pernicious nature of gender stereotyping across society and a call for action in terms of policy making, curriculum design and teaching practice to encourage student awareness of this systemic and therefore somewhat hidden negative influence.

Recent research

Let me now return to the depressing statistics with which I set the scene and reflect on how some recent research allows us to interpret this data. The persistent gap in mathematical achievement in schools between girls and boys has led to an enormous body of research which has thrown up at least three distinct explanations.

  1. Greater male variability hypothesis
  2. Single gender classroom hypothesis
  3. Societal gender stratification or inequity hypothesis

The first of these is a somewhat euphemistic version of the notion that there may simply be a biological difference which accounts for girls mathematical underachievement. Though one might have hoped that such a view had long since been discredited, as recently as 2008 Machin and Pekkarinen (Machin & Pekkarinen, 2008) concluded “that gender differences in the variance of test scores are an international phenomenon”.

The single-gender classroom hypothesis, the idea that girls do better in all-girl classes, is just as old as the biological difference view and one, as we’ve seen, given some support in Australia’s 1987 National Policy. An example often cited here is that in many Muslim countries (with typically gender-segregated classes) girls are in fact more likely to outperform boys, a phenomenon Fryer and Levitt (Fryer and Levitt, 2010) considered to be “consistent with the hypothesis that mixed-gender classrooms are a necessary component for gender inequality to translate into poor female math performance”.

A recent and comprehensive meta-analysis, that of Kane and Mertz (Kane and Mertz, 2012) not only explains the limitations in the above cited analyses but establishes a coherent framework from which to interpret and understand the current state of the gender gap in mathematical achievement. With regard to the greater male variability hypothesis they point out that if true it should persist across cultures but demonstrate this to be false. As for the single gender classroom hypothesis they explain that in the specific case of Muslim countries what is actually happening is that the girls are in fact performing poorly with the boys doing even worse and that this is in part due to little emphasis being placed on maths in the typically religious schools in combination with the weaker girls being encouraged to leave school early. More generally, analysing data from countries in which 17% or more students attend single-gender schools (including the Muslim countries mentioned) they found no consistent trends. Instead, they found that a particular component of the GGI, economic participation and opportunity, correlated strongly with overall maths scores. In other words, countries in which women and men have comparable earning potential and similar promotional opportunities within the workforce, generally have higher mathematics scores and smaller gender gaps.



WEF (2016), The Global Gender Gap Report 2016, World Economic Forum, Geneva, Switzerland, 2016. (

OECD (2016), PISA 2015 Results (Volume I): Excellence and Equity in Education, OECD Publishing, Paris. (

McInnis, S. (1996), Girls, Schools…..and Boys, Promoting Gender Equity Through Schools: Twenty Years of Gender Equity Policy Development, Parliamentary Research Paper 24 1995-96, Parliament of Australia.

CSC (1987), National Policy for the Education of Girls in Australian Schools, Commonwealth Schools Commission, May 1987.

AEC (1993), National Action Plan for the Education of Girls 1993-1997, Curriculum Corporation for the Australian Education Council, 1993.

Machin, S. and Pekkarinen, T., Global sex differences in test score variability, Science 322 (2008), 1331-1332.

Fryer, R. and Levitt, S., An empirical analysis of the gender gap in mathematics, Am. Econ. J.:Applied Econ. 2 (2010), 210-240.

Kane, J. and Mertz, J., Debunking Myths about Gender and Mathematics Performance, Notices of the AMS 59:1 (2012) 10-21.