There is a well documented crisis in school mathematics in Australia. Just as the digital revolution is hurtling us towards a future in which strong foundational skills in science and mathematics will be more in demand than ever before, participation in advanced high-school maths is collapsing, standards are falling and the gender gap is widening. No surprise then that demand for private tutoring has surged over the last decade. Parents have come to regard spending upwards of $50 an hour for personalised support, often on top of private school fees, as a necessity. But what of those students from under-resourced backgrounds, those for whom private tutoring is simply not an option? Not surprisingly they are significantly more likely to leave school without any formal mathematics qualification. The vicious cycle of social inequality and social immobility is thus perpetuated. The societal fissure between rich and poor widens.
The Institute for Enquiring Minds is an educational initiative dedicated to helping precisely these students. The goal of The Institute is to redefine access to maths tutoring and in so doing reset attitudes towards mathematics and mathematicians.
There is a desire, in particular amongst the university students who form the core workforce of the burgeoning private tutoring business, to help break the vicious cycle. These socially engaged young mathematicians are prepared to donate two hours of their time per week to mathematically mentor a disadvantaged school student. Organising and deploying this mentoring bandwidth, The Institute aims to redefine access to individualised mathematical support. What an opportunity for a school student, who is either struggling or under-challenged, is keen to learn but cannot afford private tuition. They can start to rebuild their mathematical self-belief or grow mathematical wings, by working one-on-one with a maths wizard so passionate about their subject they are willing to gift their enthusiasm, knowledge and time.
Just as important for our volunteer mentors is a desire to challenge existing stereotypes of mathematics and mathematicians. Social educational programmes are typically aligned with the arts. Mathematics is too often portrayed as a cold, difficult subject only enjoyed and mastered by socially inept geeks. Our initiative is a proud celebration of our volunteer’s love of mathematics and their commitment to positive social change. The empathy and enthusiasm of our volunteer mentors will reset attitudes of who mathematicians are and how it can feel to do mathematics.