One-Hour Challenge

It has been a while since I wrote anything by way of contribution to stretching more able students, so here goes with a gentle re-entry to the fold.  In common with some other contributors, I’m less happy than I was with ‘gifted and talented’ as anything more than a convenient shorthand:  ‘gifted’ has too many associations with predetermined intelligence or a genetic advantage, or the perception thereof.  But that’s for another day.  For the moment, here is something which I hope you find useful and can adapt for your own situation.

Here’s a simple, open-ended task for your students.  Write an essay for one hour. It’s not an exam with invigilators, and relies on student honesty in terms of the timing.  They can use any books or resources they like.  What matters is the quality of the thinking and the cogency of the argument. I’ve borrowed the titles, or at least some of them, from the Examination Fellows challenges set by All Souls College, Oxford.  They offer an ideal combination of pungency and wit, simplicity and complexity, challenge and controversy.

AS College

Here is the task I sent to all students:


This Festive Challenge is open to students from any year group.  Scholars are especially encouraged to participate, but the One-Hour Challenge is open to all.

The following essays have been set, or are similar to those set, to those wishing to become Examination Fellows of All Souls College, Oxford.

Your challenge is to choose one title and write an answer in one hour.  You may think about it in advance for as long as you like, or not at all, and discuss it with whomsoever you like, or no one at all, but you must write it in (self-invigilated) exam conditions, on paper or computer, in 60 minutes.  From the entries, I will draw up a shortlist and then pass these anonymised essays to another teacher or teachers to decide the winners.  Prizes will comprise book tokens and immeasurable prestige.

Deadline: Friday 8 January 2016 4pm. No later.

  1. Make a robust case against keeping calm and carrying on.
  2. Improve the rules of any sport.
  3. Do religions have to be theistic?
  4. Ought human beauty to be healthy?
  5. Can you still be an explorer?
  6. Are there too many of us?
  7. Twenty-seven British Prime Ministers have been Oxford alumni. What is the right response to this?
  8. ‘Archaeology is an expensive way of telling us what we already know’ (Peter Sawyer). Discuss.
  9. If all human emotions are just chemical changes in the brain does it really matter if we feel love as opposed to sadness?
  10.   ‘What have the Romans ever done for us?’ (Monty Python). Discuss.
  11. How is the relationship between you and your body different from that between you and your online avatar?
  12. Does good writing do good?
  13. Is the physicists’ sought-for ‘theory of everything’ a chimera?
  14. Is Edward Snowden a hero or a villain?
  15. Postmodernism – sooo last century. Discuss.
  16. Does multilingualism mean multiple identities?
  17. Does Mathematics need foundations?
  18. Is English the new Latin?
  19. How should we listen to music?
  20. Can there be a purely aesthetic appreciation of religious art?
  21. Who is the most overrated figure you have studied?


Students were given the Christmas holidays to complete the task, and the essays have just come in.  I’ve had about 25 essays, which is not that many for an entire School, but it’s a start.  There are essays from Years 7-13.  Students have argued for Gandhi being overrated, and for both golf and orienteering as needing improvements to their rules.  Monty Python films have, refreshingly, been studied by Year 8 students, and this generation of digital natives has not hesitated to assess what exactly their online avatars tell us, and them, about ourselves and themselves.

I’ll draw up a shortlist and then pass it to a couple of colleagues to put into a final rank order.  Book tokens and prestige are the prizes!  This idea came first from my predecessor in post, Judy Nesbit, and I have tweaked it a little.  Feel free to do the same, of course.

There is ample challenge here for us as staff.  How do we compare an essay about Edward Snowden with another assessing beauty?  But then we shouldn’t be expecting to stretch our students without offering intellectual challenge to ourselves.  In an ideal world, I should have tackled one of these questions myself.  A New Year’s Resolution, perhaps!

Please feel free to comment, question or criticise.  Without having read and assessed all the essays, I can’t vouch for the task yet – I’ll update in due course – but reaction has already been sufficiently positive among students and colleagues to warrant a repeat.

AS Library