Intellectual play-fights with The Philosophy Man

Updated: Sep 21, 2020

An interview with Jason Buckley, original founder of the Philosophy Man, one of the leading providers of philosophy for children in the UK.

Could you briefly tell us how long you have been at it and what originally inspired you to philosophize with children? What's your philosophical background?

I got into P4C in 2009. I was teaching at a school on Canvey Island. The school was not in a good place. One of the colleagues in the English department invited me to see a P4C session. It was an island of civilization, calm, dialogue, pleasantness and thinking in the middle of an otherwise rather chaotic, unsuccessful school. I thought, “Oh my goodness, why haven't I been doing this for years?” Then I did all the training I could very quickly. I remembered then that I'd done a course with Roger Sutcliffe, back when I was an undergraduate at Cambridge. But it was so many years after I got into teaching, that I had pretty much forgotten I had ever done the course. So I didn't really get a chance to practice back then. 

How does the Philosophy Man operate?  What is that you do?

For many years I've run a bulletin which I think pretty much started the beginning of the business. The bulletin goes out to 17500 teachers around the world in 93 different countries. I have a new content that goes out every week: stories, videos, all sorts of things. And then also there's a sequence of things that goes out to people who are new to philosophy and sends them stuff when they sign up. They get three or four months of stuff, which is in a sequence to help people get used to it, as well as the new stuff that I put out. Then some of those people buy books, like the Pocket P4C which I wrote a long while ago, and the more recent ones. The thing that actually makes my living is doing workshops and teacher training in schools, some straightforward training, but more often, I'll work with the kids during the day while teachers are watching, and then afterwards, I'll “show my working” and we'll do some stuff as a staff. I think it is really, really valuable for people to see somebody doing it who's an experienced facilitator.

What was your biggest obstacle when you started? And how did you deal with it?

I suppose the biggest obstacle for me was that after the first six months that I had while finishing up my contract, I then wasn't attached to a school. So I had to find groups straightaway to work with in order to keep developing my practice and also to make a living. I did that as a mixture of doing workshops that were for especially bright kids, like working with 20 (year 9) students for a day. That's how it started out. And then off the back of the bulletin and other things, I've just got more and more training, working more and more in primary schools. It was getting kids to work with, which is the biggest challenge to begin with. 

Do you think the public perception of philosophy with children has changed in recent years? It's still not a kind of mainstream stuff, is it?

It's not quite mainstream. But that said, there are so many schools in the UK now who have had a go at it, I would be surprised if there were many primary schools where the head teacher hadn't at least heard of philosophy for children. Where there isn't practice, still there's a lot of awareness and there's a lot of goodwill. But what there's still a lack of, is schools that really commit to it enough to do it well. So there's a lot going on, but a lot of it is pretty poor. The schools are not really giving the time to it, and also not realizing just how much training teachers need to just make the shift to this way of working.

Do you think that philosophy with children will become part of mainstream or it will always be kind on the outskirts of education?

What will become more mainstream is approaches to oracy, because there's a huge issue, certainly in the UK. More and more children having delayed speech or are not getting exposed to proper speech at home, partly as you get generations of parents who are more focused on devices and so on. So you're getting great levels of inequality opening up there. So, schools are going to be looking more and more to have productive talk in the classroom, and philosophy for children is one of the best ways of doing that. I think as well, philosophy is becoming more and more of a thing in the culture. I can see a lot more community philosophy happening through online forums and so on.

You're training teachers to help them to include inquiry into the subjects they are teaching. Do you think they are being successful with it later?

It depends. I would say any school that I go into, even if I just do a day there, maybe 25% of the staff will just love it. These’ll be the sort of people whose teaching style is easier to adjust to this way of working. All they need to be is to be shown a way of doing it and then they will want to do it as much as possible. So that's the enthusiasts, but to get a whole school working at it, you need to keep going back and showing people again, because you've got a mixture of enthusiasts, people who are open to it, but you've also got in any school some resistance as well. Some of those resisters will never want to do this because their teaching is all about control, structure, obedience. They may be very effective educators in that way, and this is so far out of their comfort zones that it's hard for them to see the value of it. The more you engage with them, the more people you can bring with you.

And do you think it's not an additional strain to their already busy schedules? How do you justify using philosophical inquiry in the school, in the classroom?

There's two approaches you can take. One is to try and really make the case that philosophy for children deserves its own sacrosanct separate piece of time, to just do stuff which is purely philosophical, and doesn't need to earn its place in the curriculum. Or you can go for trying to embed it in what people are already doing. I've more gone towards that latter way of doing it because I find that so few schools are willing to give the time to it. Unless a teacher's got a philosophical background, it's quite hard for them to put together a series of lessons of philosophy existing out by itself, rather than the philosophical questions within the topics they're already doing. So I train teachers to look for the philosophical topics, and philosophical questions within topics they're already doing, but also to have some philosophy time that they set aside.They might be doing something from their topic one week, from R.E. the next, from the book they're reading the next. So they've got philosophy time, and then they're putting the curriculum into their philosophy, if that makes sense, rather than, “We're going to diffuse it through everything we do”, because if they do that, nothing ends up happening.

When I was writing my book, I was kind of trying to make a case that you don't necessarily need to be a philosopher to facilitate philosophical inquiry children, but also a philosopher wouldn't necessarily be equipped to do it either. The opinions are kind of divided in the professional environment of the related field. Where do you stand on this?

I think that what matters the most is a philosophical disposition. You could be a philosopher who has a very unphilosophical disposition, somebody who can probably get a first from a top university in philosophy, whilst being very much a “history of ideas” sort of person who's very good at citing arguments and the critiques of them and how they intersect with each other, but who doesn't have the intellectual curiosity to explore ideas organically. Equally, you can have somebody who hasn't got a philosophical background, but who is naturally very intellectually curious, willing to pursue ideas where they go, willing to think logically and critically about things, but who enjoys argument and playing with ideas. So that's a more philosophical disposition, towards philosophical and playful dialogue.That's the thing you can't do without. 

If you read philosophy, if you know philosophy, there's no doubt that it helps. I can't see how anyone would be a real wizard at this sort of thing and not end up being curious enough to at least read some philosophy. That doesn't make sense to me. How you can say, “I really love doing philosophy for children, but I can't say I've ever read any philosophy.” I can't see