How Task Centres Began
We are indebted to the Mathematical Association of Victoria for keeping this article on their site until 2008. In May 1998 this article was originally published in the newsletter of the Problem Solving Task Centre Network which was developed and managed by Michael Richards for 15 years.
Neville de Mestre, creator of the first Task Centre, briefly describes how the concept came about. Neville is pictured opposite visiting the Task Centre office in June 2004. He is working on Task 55, Fold Up Houses, which had been recently developed in conjunction with Per Berggren and Maria Lindroth in Sweden. Learn more about Neville's visit here.
When I first moved from teaching in a high school to
lecturing at university I realised that the main interests of university
mathematicians in what was being taught in schools was in the mathematics
content of the final year of pre-university. Primary school mathematics
was too far beneath their level to even contemplate doing something with.
I began to think how I could assist primary school
teachers and lower secondary school teachers and began contributing to
mathematical education journals. One of my colleagues, John Burns,
introduced me to kitchen mathematics in the late 60s, whereby many
kitchen tasks of cooking, laying the table, having guests to dinner etc.
were used to add a practical influence to his children's mathematical
In 1973 I went on study leave to Cambridge University and, while there,
heard about the Stapleford Mathematics Resource Centre some 15km away. I
visited it and discovered that it was a teacher's resource centre, but the
teachers didn't come very much, because during the day they were teaching
and when school finished they went home as soon as they could (it gets
dark in England at 3:30 in the winter). Consequently the Resource Centre
head had decided to add a mathematical obstacle course so that a class
could be brought to the Centre and occupied while the teacher browsed
through the Resource Centre.
During one school holiday I took my three school-age daughters (aged 5,
7 and 10) to observe their reaction to the obstacle course. It consisted
of about 15 hands-on tasks using wood, plastic, old telephones, blocks and
cardboard shapes. My children are reasonably normal, and objected strongly
to being taken to do mathematics on a school holiday, but were persuaded
to come along because I promised it would be different. How different it
was I didn't realise until it was time for us to go home. They didn't want
to leave! They were enjoying themselves, and even said that this was
better than TV. Now TV for kids in England in 1973 was pretty good, with
educational programmes like Blue Peter and the Magic Roundabout. Added to
that our family did not have a TV in Australia (we hired a television for
one week to see Neil Armstrong take his first steps on the moon). Hence I
started to think about the possibilities of a child-based hands-on
mathematics task centre in Australia, and began collecting ideas for
|I returned to Australia in January 1974, where Gough Whitlam was now in
charge and there was money available for educational innovations through
the newly-set-up Schools Commission. After a lecture on the Stapleford
Maths Centre to the Canberra Mathematical Association I was encouraged by
Dr. (now Professor) Mike Newman of the Australian National University to
apply for a grant to set up a Mathematics Task Centre in Canberra for
upper-primary school children.
||This is how the first maths centre for 8 to 80 year olds was born - and it was good!
The original plan for it was to be at Red Hill Primary School and
$30,000 was requested for a two year period to cover a teacher's salary
and the material necessary to build 100 tasks. By the time the grant was
announced I had decided to move the venue to Campbell Primary School which
was closer to my office at the Royal Military College, Duntroon where I
was lecturing in the Mathematics Department.
I advertised and selected a teacher, Bea Duncan, in early 1976. The two
of us put together 100 tasks and organised the charts, hands-on materials,
kitchenware containers, instruction and answer cards. The local high
school maths classes built some mathematical mobiles to hang from the
ceiling, and we opened the doors to our first class of 8 year olds in
March 1977. There were six teachers, three parents and 25 children in the
room, and I spent the whole time keeping the teachers and parents away
from the tasks that the children were attempting. It didn't take me long
to realise that these tasks were for primary, secondary and adults
This is how the first maths centre for 8 to 80 year olds was born - and
it was good!
Neville de Mestre is an Emeritus Professor at Bond University,