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.

Green Line

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 experiences.

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 tasks.

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 too.

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, Queensland, Australia.

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