Timeless Lessons from the Socratic Classroom

An engraving after a painting by Pinelli

Socrates, living in 5th-century B.C.E. Athens, left no writing behind. His young admirer, Plato, did. Indeed, he modeled his writing career after the folksy conversations that enthralled him as one of Socrates’ followers. Plato made Socrates the linchpin of his fictionalized dialogues. 

In each, we find Socrates and other characters collaborating in problem-solving as they attempt to answer the question at the heart of the dialogue. Along the way, they respond to Socrates’ queries, share stories, and float arguments to advance their discussion. Readers of these engaging, play-like colloquies witness the creative genius of Plato. Along with the participants in each dialogue, the reader is drawn into the stories they weave, compelled to evaluate the arguments introduced and consider solutions to problems posed. Readers of Plato can easily be charmed by his narratives and lose track of time. Written more than 2,400 years ago, Plato’s dialogues seem fresh to us moderns, and they display that he understood key elements of good teaching. Most of all, they remind me that effective teaching is best conducted through the medium of conversation.

“Okay, friends, take out a piece of paper. You’re going to write a short poem, three lines, no more than seventeen syllables.” 

“What if it’s eighteen?” asked Tom.

“Then you’d have one syllable too much, a fat zero,” I said, followed by a cryptic wink.

Some smiles formed as their 16- and 17-year-old faces searched the room, trying to determine if their grins were justified, that is, aligned with those of their peers. A quick scan confirmed the suitability of their reactions; they decided, accurately, that I was only kidding about the zero.

“Tom, try to squeeze everything you want to say into seventeen syllables. View it as a challenge,” I explained. “Here’s the plan, just remember these expectations. Your poem shall have three lines, and each of the following features must make an appearance. First, make sure your poem touches on or alludes to death. Second, each poem should reference the fleetingness of things.”

“What do you mean ‘the fleetingness of things,’ Mr. Graseck?” inquired Kirsten.

“Glad you asked, Ms. K. I wondered if anyone would,” I murmured. “The fleetingness of things means nothing is permanent. For example, a note played on the piano is loud then slips away. Eyesight often declines as we age. Even paint on a wall fades. Thanks Ms. K.”

“Now, take two minutes and write down a minimum of three examples of the fleetingness of things,” I directed. “Then we’ll share our lists. I’ll do it, too. Go, the clock’s ticking.”

“Stop!” I interrupted. “Julia, start us off? What’s one thing you identified as fleeting?”

Julia replied, smirking, “My parents.”

“What do you mean?” yelled Whittaker.

“They’ll both die, Whit, so will you and I,” she quickly added.

“Okay, good, but that’s in the future, we hope,” I said. “Did anyone write down things that are fleeting from moment to moment?” 

“Yup!” said Ayesha. “Clouds, they change shape right in front of your eyes. So do rivers.”

“How does a river change?” I asked.

Ayesha explained, “Well, water moves downstream, so wherever you are along the river, it changes as the water passes, and it will wear down the rocks and the banks, too. That’s how we got the Grand Canyon, water carved a path in the earth as it rushed downstream. It took six million years to get so big. It happened slowly, moment by moment.”

“Now, we’re getting profound about the fleetingness of things, and philosophical. Heraclitus, an early Greek philosopher around 500 B.C., and Ayesha think similarly,” I reported. “Heraclitus said, ‘You can never step into the same river twice for waters are ever flowing.’ That’s precisely what Ayesha said about water moving downstream, that ‘wherever you are along the river, it changes as the water passes,’” I repeated.

Casual dialogue about transitoriness continued for a while. With that foundation, I moved to addressing the core feature of the class, writing brief, haiku-like poems. “In addition to providing poetically a vivid example of the fleetingness of things,” I stressed, “I expect your brief poem to acknowledge death. You need not exhibit an actual death, but the idea of death needs to make an appearance,” I said. “Next, make sure your poem references suffering, maybe through showing pain, sadness, or disappointment. Perhaps you’ll determine another way to weave suffering into your poem. Finally, make sure something in your seventeen syllables, or less, reveals how one thing affects another,” I urged. “This is important. For example, a stone dropped into water causes ripples. No ripples without the stone disturbing the water. The ripples are dependent on the stone entering the water.”

Instructions concluded, I set the students loose, giving them four minutes to write their poems. Quiet settled over the room as each student, motivated to fulfill the criteria descended into a hyper-focused state. It was a game, a puzzle. Almost everyone enjoys a challenge, especially if it appears to be achievable. After three minutes, I gave a warning to wrap up their writing. At four, I said, “Stop! Pens down.” Immediately, students asked to share their results. I feigned interest but denied their requests. Class-wide disappointment—they wanted to share. I assured them that they’d get a chance to do so, saying, “But not quite yet. Instead, write a second poem that contains the same elements. This time I want your grandmother to make an appearance in your seventeen syllables. Again, four minutes. Go.” 

Disappointment quickly slid into pure concentration. Like before, everyone grew silent, heads tilted, eyes riveted on their papers, pens moving intermittently. The one-minute warning. “Now, stop! Look at both poems you’ve created, which is better?” Most felt the second was better. “Does anyone want to read the better of your two poems?” Hands quickly shot up. I said, “Well, you’ll get a chance to read your best work shortly, but I have one more request. Write a third poem, using all the same rules plus one more. Work into your poem a color, green.” Groans ensued. Ignoring them, I said, “Oh, don’t borrow from your first two poems. Start fresh. You have four minutes. Go.”

Their previous intensity returned. Writing poetry seemed arduous yet a playful, pleasing labor. Time skated by, students focused, working. At the one-minute warning, I said, “I’ll give you an extra minute. Whichever poem you believe is your best, I’ll let you share. Continue.” Heads remained tipped downward. Two minutes later: “Stop! Who wants to read aloud?” Many hands went up. “Great! Danny, read your best one.”

Hawk dives, snake soaring
Flops through blue sky, bloodies grass,
Grandma’s gravestone red.

“Where is green?” I asked.

“The grass,” said Danny

Others read their poems—some good, others weak, but all genuine attempts to satisfy the criteria established. Students critiqued each other’s work. Inquisitiveness and laughter filled the room. Time ran out. “Class felt like an eye blink,” said one student. 


Learning occurs when time disappears. Students must lose track of time. When I was in high school in New Jersey, each classroom had a large clock hanging on the wall at the front of the room with giant black numbers on a white face, a black metal rim encircling the time that stared down at us inmates. The big hand impressed me, never moving stealthily, imperceptibly. Rather, every sixty seconds it lunged to the next minute line, dramatizing its leap with a click. When dulled by class, I found myself, especially in Mr. McNeilly’s room, anticipating when the big hand would jump to the next minute mark. But, in engaging classes, I lost track of time, forgetting about the big hand, never hearing a click.

The realization that I have lost track of time serves as a built-in guidance counselor. It directs me to a wellspring from which to draw vitality. Journalist Bill Moyers once published a book of interviews with ten poets titled Fooling with Words, a phrase applicable to any wordsmith who loses track of time when crafting sentences. Those writers revel in the recreation spawned by acts of creation. It’s akin to the attentiveness a conscientious teacher seeks to arouse in students, hoping a well-crafted lesson will excite their natural passion for creating.

In Donald Hall’s Essays after Eighty, he reports, “The greatest pleasure in writing is rewriting,” adding, “Some of these essays took more than eighty drafts.” I, too, find writing, including revision, profoundly satisfying. While hard work, I also find it play, the kind of labor that allows me to lose track of time, humming or whistling unconsciously, as I tinker with a passage, searching for the right word, aiming toward construction of an artful sentence, striving to create a paragraph that sings. That contentment—call it playfulness, happiness, aliveness, fulfillment—exists outside time. It teaches me that a link exists between happiness and creativity. It is that link I want my students to discover. 


Teaching ancient history in the late 1980s, I spent several days designing a class to help students understand that history tampers with the truth if truth means an exact retelling of the facts. Casting about to make this point in a convincing manner, I devised an elaborate lesson that involved prearranging a shocking event, one that would garner my students’ attention, an experience they would want to recall. Behind the scenes, the school principal and I orchestrated it. Each student was given a blank piece of paper on which to answer some quiz questions that I would provide momentarily. 

Just then, according to plan, the principal barged into my room wearing a wolfman mask, saying, “Mr. Graseck, I need to talk with you right now.” My predetermined response, “Excuse me, I’m teaching. I will talk with you after the bell.” The subsequent scene in this foreordained scenario went like this: The principal grabbed my shoulders, saying, “Step outside with me, Mr. Graseck.” I replied, “Get your hands off me, this is outrageous. I will see you after class,” to which he replied, “Do you know who I am?” My response, “I don’t care who you are,” as the principal removed his mask. I blurted, “Get out of my room,” pushing him out the door. The principal gone, I turned to the class and said, “This is the kind of thing that ends up in the courts. Using the piece of paper on which you were about to answer my quiz questions, please record exactly what you saw. I’ll collect your eyewitness testimony when you are ready.”

Their attention rapt, my students began writing down their observations. Time stood still, so absorbed were they while fulfilling my request. When every student had completed recounting the event, I collected their accounts. Holding twenty-four eyewitness accounts, I started reading them aloud. Wide variations in their recollections surfaced, especially the sequence of events, their telling of who said what, and the vocabulary the principal and I used. No two recollections were alike, some with critical errors. I then explained that they had witnessed a set-up, each step in the drama choreographed. “Having heard the eyewitness testimonies,” I asked, “what lessons do you draw from this experience?” The utter unreliability of such accounts emerged as a key takeaway. Students debated the meaning of historical accuracy. And the power of engagement to facilitate learning was obvious.


If I were to say to my students, “Show me at least five things you’ve learned about Socrates, but please limit your response to a brief story of twenty-six words arranged alphabetically from A-Z,” the gauntlet would be thrown down. Conceivably, their minds, like mine when constructing a poem to fit those formal requirements, would become engaged in a problem-solving process that might cause them to lose track of time as they ascended into the world of thought. My own alphabetized, twenty-six-word poem on Socrates would look like this:


Are boys corrupted 
Discussing everything freely?
He investigates
Justice, knowledge, logic.
Maverick nuisance,
Obstinate philosopher,
Quizzical rhetorician,
Socrates tests
Unexamined values
While Xanthippe yammers zanily.

And keep in mind Socrates’ words in The Republic (7.529c):

You, I replied, have in your mind a truly sublime conception of our knowledge of the things above. And I dare say that if a person were to throw his head back and study the fretted ceiling, you would still think that his mind was the percipient, and not his eyes. And you are very likely right, and I may be a simpleton: but, in my opinion, that knowledge only which is of being and of the unseen can make the soul look upwards, and whether a man gapes at the heavens or blinks on the ground, seeking to learn some particular of sense, I would deny that he can learn, for nothing of that sort is matter of science; his soul is looking downwards, not upwards, whether his way to knowledge is by water or by land, whether he floats, or only lies on his back.