Intellectual play-fights with The Philosophy Man
Updated: Sep 21
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 the point of doing that. That means I don't think you really have a sense of what philosophy is, if you're not itching to learn more about it yourself once you get into this.
This actually is very similar to what I was trying to say in my book. And what do you think makes a good facilitator then?
I think so much of it is about listening, really listening to what the kids are actually saying. I talk about “listening to” rather than “listening for”. So listening to what the kids are actually saying, rather than listening for an opportunity to insert some philosophical nugget or drive the discussion that particular way. Because if you're “listening for” things like that, you might miss something really interesting because you're not open to what the kids are actually saying. You’re just waiting for them to fit into the script.
Another thing that is very important is a sense of play. I'm a very playful facilitator. I think the reason I enjoy doing this sort of work so much is that it's an opportunity to play with kids. Intellectually, but also with humor as well, and I really enjoy being 100% present with them, which I think is a privilege to this sort of work. I'm completely paying attention to them. I'm in the same moment as them. We're all in the same shared experience. I've not got half my brain thinking about, “How do I assess this?” or “Where does this fit into a wider scheme of work”. It’s a privileged place to be, but I think if you're going to do this, you've got to carve out the time where you can be fully present with them like that. Play with them, respond, listen, and then that's what makes you a good facilitator and makes it enjoyable for the kids as well.
That's interesting. You've touched on something important here. I've noticed that as well in my work. Because I'm not a teacher, I go into schools with my skills, my ideas and my own ways of doing this. I find myself a playful facilitator too. So I'm just wondering, if that's not something that the teachers find difficult to connect with when they're sitting with the kids all day long in the same classroom five days a week?
Massively. One thing that I think should probably be done more at schools which do P4C, is to swap classes when you're doing philosophy for children. I don't have kids myself, I'm an uncle. When I go into schools, I'm in an uncley sort of role, I don't have to worry particularly about behavior management because I'm a novelty, and therefore, the kids aren't playing up anyway. I can give them a fresh start with me and the rest of it's not connected to what's happened the rest of the day. So, the relationship is a bit different. And that probably helps me to be more playful with them. So maybe for people to do that with each other's classes would make the philosophy stand out, if you're most of the time with your own class.
It also allows you to have a slightly different relationship with those kids. Some teachers have already got that lovely sort of rapport with their own classes. But even then, I've seen some teachers who I would consider to be absolutely superb practitioners, super-nice people with a really nice, playful relationship with their kids, doing stuff with puppets and lots of things that I would consider to be super-good practice; but still, in times while I've been watching them, they've reverted back into teaching. They've not been able to resist the “teachable moment” to go back into instructing mode. That just doesn't work. It's a different thing altogether.
I've come across two approaches in the philosophical inquiry with children. One that puts a big weight on forming questions by students, by pupils. And then the other provides the community of inquiry with a leading task question. It struck me that your approach represents quite a balanced approach. What's your thoughts on this?
Why would you get the children to create their own questions? You get the children to create their own questions so they have ownership of the learning and an interest in the questions. But if you do that through a separate stage, then quite often, that becomes a rather boring ritual. It's a massive obstacle in the early stages because the kids come up with rubbish questions. People might say, “Oh, well, there's no such thing as a rubbish question. There's philosophy in every question.” Well, in that case, what you're doing is you're putting that philosophy in there yourself. You are shoehorning into their question, your philosophical take on it. It's not honouring the question they have. It's like some kind of magic trick, so you might as well be honest and just say, “Look, I'm going to give you a question. If you during the discussion come up with a new question, and we think that's more interesting than my question, I'm very happy to switch across to it.”
Or I might create a new question in reaction to what the children are saying. I've converged on a very similar approach to the Philosophy Foundation. Just give children a question to get the discussion started, because it saves a lot of time. But then have your ears out there on stalks, for any emerging questions that arise, if it turns out that that's what they really want to talk about, and it's philosophically fruitful to do so. I'd rather get them into creating questions at the end of the discussion, where all the juices of the thinking have swapped around and everything's really cooking. Then I could perhaps bring a new stimulus to the questions that they come up with. I want to honour their thinking. But I don't want to do it through my process. I want to do it through listening to what they have to say.
You've recently started reaching out to parents too and got schools to send 'sticky questions' to take home. Personally, as a parent, I love this idea. How does it work? And why would you want to engage parents?
It was a correspondent, Julie Mahon, who was working at Latton Green Primary. She'd been sending out sort of “Thunks”. She'd been sending those out on stickers and she shared this idea with me. I thought it was fantastic. The parents really enjoy it. The kids really enjoy it. When I've gone back into schools that have been doing it, the kids have been asking me the questions and they can remember it word for word. One of the reasons I’m especially keen on it, is that there's a lot of research around the Million Word Gap. The difference between kids who are exposed to a lot of talk at home before they go to school can be as many as a million words difference. But with some more fine grained research, it's not the number of words they've heard, it's the number of conversational turns that they've had, that is important. So in disadvantaged households, and obviously this is generalizing, there's less talk and more of the talk is imperatives, “Get your coat, do this, don't do that!” Less of it is exploratory turn-taking sort of talk. So this is a way of making it easier for parents to get involved. Kids can go home with the sticker, have a chat with mum, dad, grandparents, siblings, and then come back to school the next day or on the Monday morning and then have a class discussion. Of course, the other benefit of it is because they've got one of these every week, it ensures that even those “resisters” that I was talking about earlier on, all the teaching staff are still giving out that sticker every week. So you're building in frequency of exposure to this kind of thinking, which is really important.
Do you have an example of a "sticky question" for the COVID quarantine at home?
When I was looking for ones to put out in our newsletter, so many of them were taking on this dark new resonance. I was searching around for one that I could put out that didn't sound dark. “Can you think yourself happy?” Some of the ones that were in primary, from reception age were,”If you had a secret door, where would it go to?”, “Should adults be told to tidy their rooms?”, “What ways are children better than adults?”, “Should the government tell people what to do?”, “Should the government stop us from doing things that are bad for us?” So many of them had these new resonances because of the times we're living in.
Does working with children, having to discuss important ideas with children, help you personally to live a better life or as Socrates would have it, an examined life?
Without getting into the unexamined life side of it, I think, especially at the moment, doing philosophy with kids is just such an incredible tonic. There is literally nothing I'd rather spend an hour doing, than running an online philosophy seminar with kids at the moment because of the energy, that sort of sheer exposure to the life force, that you get from having a group of kids engaged in this sort of stuff. I find this a wonderful way of being with young people. Philosophy is very sustaining any day of the week. My day job of going into schools and doing five or six sessions with kids and then with teachers afterwards, I can do that every day. You know, I wish I didn't have to run a business to go with it because that can get a bit boring, but being with kids doing philosophy is an absolute delight. So in the terms of its effect on my thinking? Kids will sometimes say things I end up incorporating into my personal philosophy, and I think that it stops you from becoming mentally fossilized if you're being exposed to these different points of view.
What can parents do to convince their children that philosophy is wisdom and not just a waste of time?
One analogy that I use, although an instrumental thing, is to say that it's a bit like the way runners will sometimes train by running on sand. Not because they're going to end up running a race on sand but because running on sand is harder than running on a normal surface. So if you can run on sand, then it makes running on the normal surface relatively easy. By tackling these really challenging questions, you sharpen your thinking. Then when you come to the more ordinary mundane questions, and need to reason about them, it's relatively easy.
For a non-instrumental answer, something that's more important, is the way that philosophy and doing philosophy connect to human flourishing. If you want to be happy as a human being, it's not enough to just kget on with doing stuff. If you do that, then you can easily be drawn into spending a lot of time and effort on things that when you really think about them, don't actually bring you a lot of happiness, whether that is addictions, negative relationships, all sorts of things. So the capacity to be able to step back from the everyday and think more deeply about what matters and what is important is really important for people's well being or increases the odds, I think, of a Good Life. Are we going back to Socrates and the unexamined life? Not that an unexamined life is not worth living, but that an unexamined life is more likely to not be worth living. You might have an unexamined life, and just by luck, or because you have a naturally sunny disposition, it all works out fine. But that's happening by chance. It's not happening because it's unexamined, or very unlikely to be the case.
Whereas, if you're an optimist about the power of reason, then you will think that by reasoning about anything, you can think better about it. That includes being able to think about your own life. That's also why I do philosophy. Because it's in the act of talking to somebody else about one of these ideas, you find out what it is that you think. The idea that you think about stuff, and then you express your thoughts is, I think, false most of the time. It's in the act of expressing your thought that you find out what you think. Speech is out there first and only later do we suck it back inside our heads and make it a private thing. I think that the same happens with thinking: it's through dialogue that we find out what we think.
Like you said you're not a parent yourself, but do you have any ideas how parents can engage philosophically with children and how to do one on one philosophy with a child. Any suggestions?
My top tip is to play around with the “devil's advocate” idea, so that whatever your child's answer to a particular question is, you argue the opposite. Sometimes being particularly obstinate in your opinion or being really perverse in having an opinion which is just ridiculous, and making them argue you out of it. Having a soup bowl as a hat and then saying, you know, this is my new hat. What do you think, is it a hat or is it a soup bowl? Why can't my soup bowl be a hat? I think kids really enjoy that cut and thrust. It's a bit like intellectual play-fighting with children. That is a delightful thing to do. The kids really enjoy it. It has its own rules, you know, its own ethics just as with the genuine play-fighting. You don't use your physical strength to completely overwhelm the child. You let them enjoy that struggle of pushing back against you and testing their strength. And it's similar if you're doing a kind of intellectual play fight with the child, you don't, you know, fillet their argument using all your adult brainpower and experience, but you have that kind of give and take, give them something to argue back against. They can enjoy sometimes the feel they've got one over on you and that sort of thing. So my tip would be intellectual play-fighting.
We didn't mention Mr Spot and Mr Stripe yet. Tell us shortly about this project.
The origin of Spot and Stripe is one of my pastimes. I was watching chess videos by a Serbian guy called Mato Jelic. He does these retellings of chess games, which always start and finish in exactly the same way. He produces one each day without fail. And when I was watching it, I thought, “How can I do the same thing with philosophy for children? How can I have some interesting short videos that have that satisfying feeling of starting and finishing in the same way?” And that's where Spot and Stripe came from. They are two cartoon characters who enjoy asking questions and then disagreeing with each other. They always take different points of view. What they do is get the argument started - it might be something like, “Is it good to explore somewhere no one's ever been before?” Spot will be all for it and Stripe will be really timid about it. Or it might be something a lot more serious such as, “If a bad person's made some really good art - is it okay to enjoy it?”, a much more adult theme. They ngo back and forth a little bit and then at the end, they ask, “What do you think?” And they both go, “Hmmmm…” and that's how they always finish. It's lovely, when I go into schools, sometimes the kids will say, “Oh, you’re Mr Stripe?” Closest I get to the feeling of celebrity!
Jason about himself:
I have been learning and training in philosophy for children for around ten years now. When I was a secondary school teacher of English, the favourite part of my work was visiting Year 7 forms to tell philosophical stories and run discussions.
On one occasion, a boy said, “Yay! It’s the Philosophy Man!” and the name has stuck. I bring my hobbies of improvised comedy and storytelling into my philosophy, so that it’s a form of intellectual and social play for children (and adults) that is “deep fun”. I also enjoy caving, and in normal times I live on a narrowboat in Cambridge which brings me (literally) close to nature, as my feet are below the the waterline. Visit www.thephilosophyman.com for my blog and to receive a free, weekly bulletin of teaching ideas. I also run Zoom philosophy sessions for both children and adults through www.p4he.org and www.giftcourses.co.uk
*The intervie was originally published for the Polish Magazine Filozofuj! here