Grace Lockrobin is the Founding Director of Thinking Space, a social enterprise that creates interesting and inclusive spaces for people of all ages to think philosophically together.
In our discussion Grace explained how Thinking Space developed, her views on the relationship between philosophy and education, the value of community philosophy, and much more.
Grace Lockrobin. Image by Grace Lockrobin.
Ciaran: Hi Grace, so to start with, could you give a bit of a background to yourself and your work?
Grace: Sure, so I studied philosophy as an undergraduate student in 2002-2005 and I quickly realised that I loved philosophy and that I wasn’t bad at it. But more importantly, I came to see it as deeply important. I couldn’t understand where it had been all my life and why it was that philosophy isn’t on the school curriculum here in the UK. I was still a student when I first wondered whether it would be possible to do philosophy in the community, but I didn't quite know how. I had in mind the model of community artists - they were the kind of educators that had inspired me at school offering exploratory, inquiry-based educational experiences that were also really cool: they made us think and put us in charge of our own learning.
I guess that seed of thought is what has carried me through to where I am now. So, as I finished my degree, that was what I had in mind to do. Next, I did a Master's in philosophy at Leeds University in 2006 and I was so focused on this idea that in one of my funding applications, instead of talking about my plans for my PhD and my ambitions for academia, I wrote: "I'm going to be a community philosopher, and I need to do a Master's to prepare me for that". They must have read it and thought that was hopelessly naïve. Needless to say, I didn't get that funding! Still, that is what I did the Master’s for and that is what I did with it.
After my MA I got a job in applied ethics at Leeds in 2007, where I worked on lots of diverse and interesting programmes in medical ethics, engineering ethics and business ethics and other areas. I helped develop educational materials on everything from doping to whistleblowing and did loads of teaching in obscure nooks and crannies across campus. Accruing hundreds of hours of teaching practice helped me begin to think of myself as an educator, which was really important for me as I hadn’t formally trained as a teacher. But the most interesting thing to come out of this was that I was doing philosophy with people who have never done it before, because they were, you know, Sport and Exercise Science students or Dentists. This meant thinking carefully about making philosophy accessible, engaging, and relevant. Some of them didn't really want to do it, and I really enjoyed the challenge that presented. It made me ask, "Why are we doing this?" Which is a question I think any educator should ask themselves from time to time.
During this period, I set up my company Thinking Space. It was only supposed to be a side-hustle while I pursued this work through the University and maybe studied for a PhD. But one gig at a time, I became emboldened doing the freelance community philosophy work. Opportunities opened up in schools and with charities and cultural organisations. I began to believe that there was a real job in this field and that it could make me enough money to survive. So, I went part-time in a role that could have been a gateway to a proper job and a secure career. That seems like madness to me now, but in 2008, I was in my mid-20s and I just went for it. I dedicated myself mostly to doing one community philosophy project after another or sometimes many projects at the same time. I constantly had the pleasure of doing philosophy with thousands of children and adults, many for the very first time.
In 2011, I stared a philosophy PhD, which I'm still doing. My research is philosophy of education, specifically the significance of stories in ethics education, a project that draws together various strands of my work and writing in education, ethics and aesthetics. I think that philosophy of education is one of the natural places for public philosophy. Whereas most branches of philosophy can be found in philosophy departments, philosophy of education can be seen as the ‘poor relation’ of the discipline.
Often, (as is the case at my institution, University College London) it's found in the education department, which for some is somehow "lesser". But I find this really refreshing. Apart from bioethics and some other forms of applied philosophy, it's one of the few instances of philosophy really getting involved in the real world, thinking about curriculum, thinking about pedagogy, working with social scientists and psychologists and so on.
Anyway, my thesis rumbles on and I hope to finish it soon, but I recognize that over the years, I’ve often been pulled away by many exciting opportunities for community philosophy. I do speak and write and publish academic philosophy, and there's a lot of things that are very interesting and indulgent about being an academic which really appeal to me. But I’m most fulfilled when I’m doing philosophy with communities. I strongly believe that philosophy does the most good when it’s out there in the wild.
"I strongly believe that philosophy does the most good when it’s out there in the wild."
Ciaran: So, could you tell me a bit more about Thinking Space? What the work involves, the different places it takes you, the people involved, and so on.
Grace: Sure, so to begin with it was just me as a freelancing philosopher-for-hire. That work was almost entirely in schools and it came at a time where there was unprecedented educational investment via the Labour Government funded ‘Creative Partnerships’ programme. The funding allowed me to do all kinds of things like philosophy in forests, philosophical treasure hunts, inquires in art galleries and immersive philosophical performances. In partnership with other philosophers and specialists from other disciplines, I was able to develop my practice at quite a pace. In 2009, we did Nozick's Experience Machine as an interactive role play with a load of Year 7's, with a great big budget and professional actors and stuff - awesome, so exciting. In another project, we got a group of disengaged teenagers together and over a year, we tried out loads of different inquiry-based learning experiences. So, we did a Crime Scene Investigation workshop one week, then photography, then clowning. We asked at the end of each week: what did it tell us about the concept of education? The result was a philosophical inquiry into the purpose of education with the most incredible resources to support students to re-engage in their own education.
This period of work, during which I was joined by my colleague Amber D’Albert, was absolutely fascinating. But it was also expensive and experimental and was never going to last. One way of looking at it is to think that that funding gave me unrealistic expectations of what a career as a community philosopher would be like. Certainly, those days are long gone! But there is a positive legacy: those years gave me a sense of creative imagination, I still ask: 'what if?' about all the projects that I do. Even though I don’t expect to have that kind of funding again, I get excited about what could be possible. I don't think "let's just do a philosophy session where an expert speaks for an hour and the audience ask a few questions".
In 2015, I turned the company into a Community Interest Company, which is somewhere between a private company and a charity; it's more of a trusted business formulation that potentially puts you in the running for public money. It allowed us to make bigger bids, most of which were unsuccessful! I was joined by a small team of philosophers and facilitators. Some used their membership to develop their own initiatives, others worked on ad hoc projects and a few just lent their moral support. We launched the company and then about three days later I realised I was expecting my first child… So, it went quickly from, "Yeah! Let's scale this up!" to "Oh god, how are we going to stay afloat?!". So, for the first couple of years of Thinking Space in this new form, I was holding things together with a newborn baby and no maternity leave. I ended up having my husband and baby follow me around on all kinds of projects which included filming for a BBC2 documentary The World According to Kids and taking part in the Education Endowment Foundation’s randomized control trial on the effectiveness of philosophy for children (P4C).
I’d scarcely recovered from the chaos of my first child when along came my second. At that point, the sustainability of Thinking Space became the goal for me rather than world domination. For that I have various members of our team over the years to thank, among them Jenny Young, Elizabeth Watkins and Sophie Collins. Because of them, we have been able to reach out to communities where voices are marginalised and do the kind of work we value most. For example, though the National Collaborative Outreach project, we’ve used philosophy to help disadvantaged young people think about their future; through the charity Ashiana, we have had conversations about beauty with mothers and children who are refugees and asylum seekers; and together with Mind the Gap Theatre we have worked with learning disabled artists to interrogate the value of their work.
Although our facilitation style often aspires to neutrality, the ethos that drives our work is not remotely neutral: we seek out ways for philosophy to do good in the world and in conversation with those we work with. This means responding to issues as they arise. In recent years, we've done some work with climate activists, about philosophical issues that are arising from the climate emergency. At the moment it's all about ethical decisions and COVID-19, so one of our members Kate Halliwell and I have just done some public philosophy with Sheffield University on the ethics of technological advancements such as contact tracing and vaccine passports.
So, as you’ll have gathered, our projects are varied in terms of content, but one of the interesting things about doing this kind of work is you don't have to be across all of the really complex philosophy around, say, privacy. If you've got a basic grounding in ethics, you can read up about it. While we rarely do a lot of didactic philosophy teaching, we do introduce content in a light-touch and open-ended way, as stimulus and provocations and in the way we facilitate the conversation. You can see it in the way we plan sessions, or invite particular people to speak, or draw on resources written by people who are experts. But the pedagogy that we use doesn't assume you know the philosophical canon, it doesn't assume you have read widely. Instead, we start with the concepts that you possess and the meanings and values that you put on those concepts. We try to meet people where they are, eliciting whatever it is that makes ideas seem significant to them, rather than saying, "You'll be familiar with the background of the dualism debate". Setting things up like that makes philosophy a club that people are excluded from. It might feel cosy from the inside, but from the outside it doesn’t look like a club worth joining!
Ciaran: That kind of meeting people where they are facilitating, not without content but striking a balance - I think that those who have public philosophy down best, they come to that kind of conclusion as well, I’ve found.
Grace: It depends on the format as well. I tend to use dialogic workshops for public philosophy, whether online or face-to-face, whereas you think about public philosophers like Barry Lam, he produces Hi Phi Nation, a podcast which is wonderfully content-rich. His interview style is expertly dialogic, but it would be remiss of him not to treat the interviewees as experts and to let them teach the audience what they know. Then there is someone like Michael Sandel who facilitates large public meetings for the BBC but also teachers dense open-access courses for Harvard. He is using the right methodologies for the format. I do notice in some philosophy in schools, the content is very light. There can be a deep methodological commitment to striping away all substantive philosophical teaching. Sometimes this is a useful practice for the autonomy of students and the professional development of teachers as facilitators. But in our work, while the emphasis is on the method of facilitating dialogue, there is definitely space for philosophical content too, so long as we don’t take over the conversation.
Ciaran: How has Thinking Space changed the way that you think about what it means to be doing philosophy? I'm particularly interested because it sounds very much like it's been informed by your understanding of pedagogy and philosophy of education. I feel like you might have a richer picture of this then some people who may have come from philosophy but have maybe not reflected as much on the practice or the activity itself too much.
Grace: My formative philosophical education didn't talk much about the concept of philosophy at all. In fact, I didn't even consider it until I wrote my MA dissertation on philosophy for children, and I found myself asking myself, "Well, what is philosophy? What are its methods?" Crucially, what is the point of doing it - on both the individual and the societal level? Doing this kind of work in the public, it's kind of ruined me for being a normal academic - which I think is both brilliant and a shame! I sometimes think that one day I’d like to try and have a more traditional job, but I worry so much about impact. I know "impact" is a dirty word in philosophy but I'm interested in impact in that kind of wider and richer sense of whose life is this making better? It probably sounds ridiculously pretentious to say that those small little workshops and engagements with schools are making people's lives better, but you don't have to make lives massively better, just a bit. If I do move into academia in the future, I hope I can find a role where I can have an impact beyond the University community, however modest.
As a result of my work, I'm really attuned to the instrumental value of philosophy. More so than ever and I don't think that it’s problematic to point to its instrumental value at all. I think it's really important. I'm now really committed to the idea that philosophy should be instrumentally valuable to society and I think it can be in a number of ways. I still think that traditional academics producing forms of understanding, it can be one of its outputs, but it can't be its only value. It's quite easy for a non-philosopher to start to unpick the value of that output when it's not in any way connected to what's going on in the world. Perhaps that's because academics aren't speaking to other disciplines, never mind the public, or they're not connecting with current issues. For example, the climate crisis, the newspapers should be awash with philosophers discussing it, people should be chipping in left, right, and centre; a few are but many aren't. I think that's one thing philosophy could kind of do to make itself more valuable.
Knowledge-producers, wisdom-producers don't even need to be doing public events, they can have a trickle-down contribution in less visible ways by being interdisciplinary in nature, or by using their platforms. But I think being interested in community philosophy has driven me towards different kinds of philosophical issues. So, I wasn't interested in Dewey, for example, before I started really understanding this work more deeply. Now I often find myself attracted to pragmatist ideas. My PhD looks a lot at Aristotle and notions of flourishing and how they connect to education. That has come arisen out of my practical experiences and my daily reflections on what education aims at, how learning connects to living, and what living well looks like. So, there is a symbiosis between theory and practice.
Participants at a Thinking Space discussion. Image by Grace Lockrobin.
Ciaran: What for you is a good place for society to get to with philosophy being more widely engaged with? Whether you call that "public philosophy" or otherwise. What for you is that kind of ideal, and what do you think needs to be done to reach that?
Grace: I think it starts in schools. I think, as part of people's formative education, experiencing philosophical inquiry as opposed to teaching philosophy as a set of ideas. I think it's a really important part of being educated. I think it's the beginning of pointing out that these questions can be asked, the significance of dialogue in answering them, and then inculcating some of the skills you need to keep asking and discussing these issues as you move through your life.
If you want this to be part of everybody’s education then this raises the debate over whether philosophy ought to be on the curriculum, or otherwise mandated to ensure that everyone gets to do it. I’m reluctant to suggest that specific schemes of work, or learning objectives about philosophy are recommended, or that anyone be "forced" to do philosophy regularly. School are such a political battleground: there are always people demanding that whatever they think is important should be
immediately introduced in schools: sex and relationship education, cookery, how to pay your bills, colonialism, different languages, non-violent direct action. All of these things are important, but the school day is nine till three! This external and top-down pressure creates intolerable pressures on schools.
So, I don't think that clamping down schools and forcing them to do philosophy would be a good idea, indeed it would be incredibly antagonistic to the aims that I have. But I think the government supporting charities that do philosophy in schools to give a bigger platform as an endorsement of this way of working, and to help charities and organisations like mine to communicate the fact that philosophy is an approach that can be used throughout education with respect to every single subject, that it can enhance the teaching practice of teachers, that it offers a thoroughgoing enhancement of what's already there, not an extra subject, that costs very little money to implement. In your history lessons, you could inquire into what counts as evidence, in your geography lessons you could ask whether the idea of nationhood makes sense.
So, there are these opportunities in every single subject to open up that dimension of children's thinking and talking and being. And that would be such an amazing place to start the wider endorsement and encouragement and promotion of philosophy, rather than the insistence that it must be taught. I suspect that if it were mandated, we’d see silly stipulations, like when you're in primary school you learn about Descartes, when you're in high school you do Kant. That would murder it!
And then I think what could flow from that is, I'd like to see a bit more of what's already happening, which is philosophy being understood as recreation. People go to philosophy and film nights a lot in university cities, for example. It's a form of recreation and it probably attracts the same old faces with certain kinds of privileges and educations, but - and it's the same as I discuss in Philosophy and Community - it's the same as playing football on a Thursday night, or joining a choir on Saturday morning. It's a form of recreation that is life-enhancing in similar kinds of ways. People play tennis because they think it's good for their body and mind, and I'd like to see philosophy happening a little bit more like that. I'd like to see every single university department have a couple of people who support that kind of thing happening. But I'd also like to see it happening in a grassroots way as well as that more top-down way.
People could be informed by having a little taste in their education, knowing it's something that could be in their life in the future. People continue sports as they played them at school, and it floated their boat and so they take it forward. Very few people, unless they're quite privileged in their education, get a chance to do philosophy. They don't know it's an option for them, they don't realise how life-enhancing it could be to talk about this stuff that you think is important.
"I'd like to see a bit more of what's already happening, which is philosophy being understood as recreation."
Ciaran: That's put into words something that I've appreciated but not to that extent about philosophy, it's recreational aspect. It just slots in so nicely with something that I think people can relate to, even without a philosophy background. They get that experience in some way.
Grace: Crucially, people recognise the value of recreational pursuits; few people spend their precious recreation time doing something they think is worthless! A lot of my work has also been in terms of philosophy as adult education. Especially when giving talks at museums and galleries, you get a crowd of people who are slightly disappointed when they discover that I'm not giving a lecture. But over repeated visits, they do appreciate the other elements of the sessions, the recreation, but also the self-betterment. Some organisations ask me to come and do philosophy as part of the professional development of their staff. They want their staff to enjoy the process but also to improve themselves. So, it can be educative, it can be improving – but recreation is often the way in.
Ciaran: So, you mentioned Philosophy and Community, a book you contributed to. I really liked your chapter and I thought there was something in there that I've not seen discussed much elsewhere. You talk about philosophy meeting a need that people might have, and you give the example of running an event in the aftermath of the Manchester Arena terrorist attack, wherein people felt compelled to discuss it even though it was not the subject of the event. That really struck me because I imagine most people would be hard pressed to read that and not think "Ah, I get it". They could understand that when you are faced with these huge experiences - and I say that because it could be something awful, but it could instead be something wonderful that happens to you - you realise that you need to ask yourself these really deep questions. You point out that these discussions can do a lot of good but of course there's things going on there potentially that need to be addressed in different way, such as around people's mental health. Nonetheless, do you see community philosophy as kind of responding to a need that people might have? And then also what are the limits of that do you think?
Grace: So, one of the things community philosophy, at least in my work, aspires to do is to create communities. Sometimes they are strangers when we meet, sometimes I go into a particular community of people who know each other, but even then, there's a community to be created in the conversation - once you have the requisite trust for the conversation to flow properly. I work on making people feel safe. They don't need to be best mates, they just need to trust that for the purpose of this conversation, and perhaps for iterations that follow, they can say what they think. And, for the same period, they need to respect other people as potential sources of wisdom and understanding.
I think community philosophy is particularly interested in these so called ‘non-cognitive’ philosophical aims. So, I want people to see an issue more clearly, and to develop some of the tools they need to think critically about that, but I also want them to be able to communicate that thinking more clearly and to hear what others are saying, and that's part of what it is to be a member of a community. Perhaps an academic philosopher might think that community building is beyond the scope of normal philosophy teaching and learning, and that it is some extra-ethical end. But I think it is central. One of the reasons to do philosophy in dialogue and not alone, is that through it we gain exposure to other ways of seeing and feeling, other bits of evidence, other perspectives that would be hidden to us otherwise.
In order to get that data from people, you've got to connect with them to make that distributed thinking possible, you've got to come together. So, it's pedagogically important that you create that kind of trust. One of the ways that you make trust is by seeking common experience, and I think sometimes there are these cultural shocks, which mean you can meet a stranger at a bus stop, and they'll say, "what's all this face mask stuff about, eh?" and it starts a conversation. There are these things in the public consciousness that bind you together with people. The Manchester attack example is an incidence of what is possible when we work on creating community and people feel there is sufficient trust to bring up what they regard as the elephant in the room. But the example also reveals something interesting about community philosophy. These are the sort of things that come up in the news and occupy your thoughts before you fall asleep at night, and you often don't have an outlet to talk about them, at least not deeply.
This is evident as we face the pandemic right now. While I might sigh audibly as I doom scroll in bed at night, I rarely turn to my husband and say, "Can life ever be the same again? Are we letting children down by closing schools? Is it better for older people to receive visitors and risk infection?" It's not always easy to have those conversations with each other. But sometimes the opportunity to do so is desperately needed, because these events break new ground for people experientially and intellectually: they need to figure them out.
A lot of my attention at the moment is directed towards after the pandemic: What will work in schools and in the community look like and how can we help? Because people are going to have this sort of ‘BC/AD’ thing. Some people have sailed through this, but others are going to be traumatised by it; people have lost loved ones, people have been frightened, people have lost their jobs, people have realised how vulnerable our economic and social systems are to collapse. And I think people are going to really want to think about these things in dialogue; it is a great way to do this kind of thinking.
There's a long seam of work about philosophy being therapeutic, and us educators in particular often have to be careful about saying "well, there is a big therapeutic dimension to what we're doing", because you quickly invite the question of whether you are qualified to do that. So, you know, if I start a session with children and we’ve got some fun puppets I'm not going to say, "who's got a horror story of someone being gravely ill from the pandemic?" I don't strive to make people emotionally vulnerable, that would be grossly inappropriate and a massive overstepping of my role. But I do think that there is a therapeutic dimension to what I'm doing nonetheless because of its community motivations, and that’s shared by people who use a similar pedagogy to me where there is attention to being considerate and reasonable. So, when we talked about the Manchester bombing, it was a bit like showing people ink blot pictures; I invited them to talk about something completely different, yet their preoccupation with a traumatic event surfaced, nonetheless. That was what was in the air and was what people needed to talk about. So, it was philosophical, but it was therapeutic in that respect, and I don't find that problematic as long as I'm doing what I can to make people feel safe.
Ciaran: So, I'd like to finish by asking whether and how this work has affected you personally?
Grace: Massively. I mean, it's changed the course of my life! In my career obviously but I think it's had other effects. My parents were first generation university educated and they became a GP and a dentist respectively, so they put something back into the world, that's what they chose to do. So, when I was younger, I thought about being a doctor or a lawyer but I didn't think I was up to it so wondered what other put-something-back-into-the-world-jobs that I could do. I thought about being a teacher, but I desperately wanted to teach philosophy and there isn’t a clear route into that in the UK. The trajectory I’ve chosen has given me a chance to at least try and put something back into the world. It has encouraged me to reach out to communities whose voices deserve to be heard and I have made some inroads, though there is so much more I’d like to do. I’m glad my generation will never retire!
Recently, people have been going outside to clap for key workers on the front line of the pandemic, it's made me think "what do I contribute next to a Morrisons checkout worker or a hospital cleaner?" When you look at it like that it's not much of a contribution, but I do know I’m doing work which isn't rewarded by promotion or high pay, so I'm motivated by seeing it’s value in people’s lives and in their learning, however small. I've learnt to seek reward from small things that happen, to see the meaning in them; in particular, things that students and participants say when they really make a breakthrough. When they hear something that helps them reach new understanding or when they put that understanding into words for the first time.
It's set me up for being a parent, actually. I've got two kids and amidst the chaos, it can be hard to tell if you are doing anything right at all. I’ve learnt to notice and appreciate the little moments of development with them. As a mum and as an educator, their achievements are something concrete that you can be proud of.
Ciaran: It’s been a pleasure to chat Grace, thank you!