Seven children dressed in black have their movements restricted to a three-metre square. A sombre judge rings a bell and tells them that in one minute their time will be up.
This may sound like a form of medieval punishment, but it's just one element of a competition called Tournament of Minds (TOM), designed to promote and test students' ability to think outside the box and use their spontaneity and ingenuity to devise creative solutions to innovative problems.
The inaugural tournament for Hong Kong primary schools recently took place at Glenealy School. Students from nine English Schools Foundation (ESF) schools competed for the opportunity to participate in the Australasian finals against schools from Australia, New Zealand and Singapore. The finals take place in Brisbane in October.
'The whole thing started in 1987 as an offshoot of the Australian Association for Gifted and Talented Children,' said recently-appointed Tournament of Minds overseas director Carol O'Donnell, who has been involved with the programme for 17 years.
She stresses, however, that the skills promoted by the tournament are valuable for all students, whatever their ability.
'Anyone can implement the strategies in every class in every school. We want to encourage experimentation and risk-taking and to expand and reward enterprise and creative and divergent thinking. The tournament mirrors what business does,' she says. 'Employers value these things.' Other programmes offer similar challenges to students but Ms O'Donnell feels that TOM fulfils a need. 'We wanted a more cost effective alternative to some similar programmes already on offer. We are a not-for-profit organisation. We try and keep [costs] manageable for everyone.'
After signing up to take part, the 12 schools involved formed teams of seven students who had to be drawn from at least two different years.
Each team was then given seven weeks to work on a long-term challenge.
Normally there are four choices but for this event teams were restricted to the social science option, which this year is titled 'Singer or the Song'.
Teams were challenged to prepare a ten-minute presentation that followed the rise of a popular music group and track what happened after they reached the top.
At the action-packed evening, the teams informed and entertained parents, students and teachers with the results of their efforts performed using only a limited range of props and materials specified in a list contained in the instruction manual. Groups made up their own songs and projected images on screens and whiteboards as team members jumped in and out of the designated space using the scripts they had developed.
Only four students are allowed in the square at any one time.
This was followed by a spontaneous challenge in which teams were allowed four minutes to prepare a solution to a problem they had not seen before.
They were allowed a maximum two minutes to report their solution to deciding what the members of an expedition to the Arctic would do if they lost their leader to illness. The fact that he was a doctor added an element of irony.
'Co-operation is the key,' says Ms O'Donnell. 'Team members are allowed no help from adults. They are expected to take various roles to come up with an original script and then use a range of strategies to solve the problem and present it appropriately.'
The tournament comes at an apposite time for ESF, whose primary schools have moved towards a more inquiry-based curriculum over the last few years. Deborah Graham, the foundation's school development adviser (primary), was pleased with the results. 'TOM provided an opportunity for students to display their creative thinking, team building and communication skills to their parents and peers from other schools within ESF,' she said.
'However, just as valuable as the presentation was the learning that occurred during the preparation.'
'Throughout the preparation stage over the last six weeks our students were able to apply their creativity, knowledge and skills. The process of problem solving and developing a response as a team enabled them to experience a wide range of feelings and consequently a deeper understanding of their own thoughts and reactions.'
Teachers agree. 'The children were incredibly engaged,' said John Marwick, a facilitator at Bradbury School. 'It was difficult to find time to give [students] enough time to practise. They were good at conversations but found it more difficult to turn ideas into a solution for the problem. Some [students] went home and slept for four hours. They were completely exhausted.'
Toby Smith, a student from Clearwater Bay School, reported: 'It was an exciting thing to do. At practice, it was really hard to get everything picture perfect as fast as you can. You've got to add bits, take away and correct your mistakes.'
Ms O'Donnell hopes that this initial foray in Hong Kong leads to further developments. 'I see [TOM] as something to expand in the Asia-Pacific region before perhaps trying Europe and even the United States. It would also be good to extend the invitation next year to all Hong Kong international schools.'
She also sees positive signs that educators in the region are increasingly open to using the skills and strategies embedded in TOM.
'I recently attended a Gifted and Talented conference in Singapore and there are tremendous advances in educational thinking in the region, and I would really like to see local schools here in Hong Kong and elsewhere in Asia use these creative ideas to encourage even more students to be independent learners and independent thinkers.'
A larger target is the mainland. 'China is the ultimate goal,' said Ms O'Donnell. 'The programme would still have to be delivered in English but we could look at modifications such as translating the instructional manuals for example, as at least one other similar organisation does.'
One issue affecting the expansion of TOM is the different timings of school years, as current year six Hong Kong students will be in year seven at the time of the finals. Though this may be a logistical headache for any participating school teams, the programme organisers agree that a liberal attitude is best and as students remain in the correct age bracket then this should not present an insuperable difficulty.
The winner of the event was Beacon Hill School, which is considering ways to fund its team's trip to Australia where it will compete with other regional and state winners. One change the students will face is that teams will be locked in a room for three hours with no prior knowledge of the main problem.
Hayden Ngan, one of the successful team members at Beacon Hill, is looking forward to it.
'TOM has taught me a lot and I feel excited and elated,' he said. 'But I'm also kind of worried. When I camped [with school] at Sai Kung I felt homesick, so it'll be hard as Brisbane is a lot further away.'