The 3D Classroom

Summer 2013

By Diane Senior, Janice Wilke, and Laura Blankenship

In schools today, we know we need to innovate in order to offer a high-quality educational program. Technological changes, global connections, and the evolving skills needed for contemporary life require us to stay fresh, to remain open to new ideas and approaches to teaching and learning. But what exactly does innovation look like? How does innovation work across disciplines and divisions? Do teachers and administrators share similar visions of what innovation is? What new ideas in education are creating the most traction?

At The Baldwin School (Pennsylvania), a team of educators set out to explore and find meaning in the oft-used expression: “innovation in education.” As a team, we were committed to thinking more deeply about teaching. We also wanted to contribute to the execution of our school’s five-year strategic plan launched in 2010. The plan states that we will “renew our school’s commitment to innovative teaching” with a focus on the education of girls and young women. Being a forward-looking college preparatory school, one of our objectives is to “provide innovative and appropriate technology to support instruction in all areas… to strengthen the school’s commitment to education relevant to the global community and to establish best practices.”

With these ideas in mind, our team met once a week, scouring the Internet, perusing the latest books in the field, and asking questions of our colleagues and ourselves. In particular, we studied the various stages of innovation already occurring in Baldwin’s curriculum, with a desire to support and improve these practices.

We focused on pedagogy and learning outcomes, rather than technology and other tools. We had additional opportunities to reflect on the role of innovation during an after-school session and the gift of an all-day retreat paid for by our administration. The result of the work was our idea of a 3D Classroom. We concluded that this broad concept could apply to every teacher: innovation, instead of displacing the good work teachers currently do, adds another dimension to that work. We felt the school could best support innovation not by mandating it, but by finding, nurturing, highlighting, and sharing innovative teaching wherever and however it occurs throughout the school.

The Third Dimension

We define a two-dimensional classroom as a teacher-to-student input followed by a student-to-teacher output. In other words, two-dimensional teaching is a “delivery system” transferring content (with varying degrees of success) from teacher to student. The students’ grasp of the material is then determined through summative assessments: measuring all students on the same criteria to establish their proficiency level regarding the delivered content (either from teacher or text).

Historically, this system was the obvious option when content and its explanation were localized, scarce, and precious. The teacher was both the delivery system and the container for content. The advent of the Internet, however, has made content available to those with access to it. Students now need the ability to assess, prioritize, and apply content found elsewhere.

We propose that learning outcomes improve when teachers add an additional dimension to the classroom experience. A three-dimensional (3D) classroom integrates one, some, or all of the following suggested elements: self-reflection, peer instruction, content creation, ideation (the process of forming ideas or images), interdisciplinary learning, and collaboration. In a 3D classroom, students actively participate in formative assignments, deciding what has value and meaning in that particular learning experience. Although students receive direct instruction from the teacher, the relationship between teacher and student differs from a 2D classroom in that the teacher is not the sole source of knowledge and judgment. In fact, 3D teachers commonly acknowledge that they do not know the answers nor do they have prescribed routes for finding those answers. They encourage student-generated lines of inquiry — creating an opportunity for students to acquire and apply knowledge — in order to connect the classroom experience with the life of the students in real time. They encourage (and possess) what Stanford Professor Carol Dweck terms a growth mindset.

On a curricular level, educators can visualize the third dimension as an additional variable in an equation. This variable can mutate from grade level to grade level, discipline to discipline, and perhaps most important, unit to unit. Each classroom curricular unit can guide what this third dimensional variable could be for the most powerful student learning experiences.

Our team observed teaching at Baldwin and analyzed what makes teaching innovative and successful. We concentrated on the classrooms that went a step beyond the linear teacher-to-student-and-back-again relationship. We found this step beyond, or deepening element, as we came to call it, usually fell into at least one of three broad categories: collaboration, creativity, and interdisciplinary approaches.

This third dimension, which defines the 3D classroom, encourages students to achieve the highest level of Bloom’s 2012 Taxonomy of Learning Domains: creating. The 3D classroom includes aspects of 21st century educational theory, most notably the qualities outlined in NAIS President Pat Bassett’s 6C’s (character or compassion, communication, collaboration, cosmopolitanism or cultural understanding, critical thinking, and creativity), Ken Robinson’s Out of Our Minds: Learning to Be Creative, Howard Gardner’s Five Minds for the Future, and Daniel Pink’s A Whole New Mind. In addition, to enable greater collaboration and reflection, many of the 3D classrooms take advantage of technological tools, such as blogging, videoconferencing, social networking, moviemaking, and animation.

Three-dimensional projects across students’ primary and secondary education are the ones they carry with them into their lives beyond school. These are the experiences that fuel a desire to be lifelong learners, passionate thinkers, and problem solvers. In other words, when adding another dimension to teaching — a dimension that values collaboration, creativity, and interdisciplinary approaches — the possibilities for learning are boundless.

A three-dimensional (3D) classroom integrates one, some, or all of the following suggested elements: self-reflection, peer instruction, content creation, ideation (the process of forming ideas or images), interdisciplinary learning, and collaboration.


Collaboration implies an active and equal connection with people other than the classroom teacher. These people could be classmates, students from other grade levels or schools, professionals in the field, or contacts anywhere beyond the school walls. Over the course of the school year, a variety of collaborative experiences within academic units broadens students’ ideas about what learning can be and resonates with their individual lives.

Working directly with classmates is perhaps the simplest way of adding a collaborative element for a 3D learning experience. For this experience to be most effective, it should move beyond the “knowledge accumulation” stage to the higher level of creating. Whether formative or summative, collaboration promotes social and vicarious learning. Students working together to improve each other’s skills must move beyond pleasantries on the social level and beyond right or wrong answers on the cognitive level. Successful peer review or collaborative content creation necessitates the ability to communicate compassionately (which implies an awareness of cultural understanding) and an ability to think critically. The group project assignments should be assessed in the same spirit as individual work for the most consistent learning experience.

Whether writing an essay, completing a science lab, putting on a play, or building a robot, students are more likely to engage meaningfully because their reputation for quality work is at stake within their peer group. Additionally, when creating video or team-teaching a class, students experience firsthand how divergent ideas can push creation further or, conversely, how ideas can be modified or crafted for a comprehensive, unified effect. Finally, students have the opportunity for goal setting and self-reflection when asked to project and assess their own contribution to the group effort.

Collaboration can extend beyond working with classmates. Through time-tested modes such as letter-writing or personal visits, or methods made possible through technology, students learn to value the opinion and experiences of others. Students also learn that “valuing the other” is a prerequisite for effective communication.

Under the guise of class assignments, Baldwin students have:

  • interviewed Starbucks patrons about the meaning of love and compared contemporary opinions with those expressed in works by Ovid, Chaucer, Dante, Boccaccio, and Milton;
  • role-played, through letters, a modern version of Romeo and Juliet with a partner from the local boys’ school;
  • recorded video testimony from a variety of people — family members, community members, alumnae, and knowledgeable professionals online about the meaning of being a global citizen;
  • shared personal expression (poetry and artwork) with a wider audience, and therefore moved from “ownership” of a sentiment to a collaboration between sender and receiver; and
  • heard first-person accounts of international events (e.g., from an alumna who worked in Afghanistan or from an Afghan American living in our community) to broaden understanding of Afghan literature or widen the views presented in novels and popular media.
Aside from various units of study, Baldwin’s ongoing development of a computing and engineering program fosters collaboration among peers, schools, students, and teachers. In the Introduction to Computing course, upper school students develop individual projects to demonstrate the concepts they learn. Student projects include programming robots to navigate mazes, sing songs, and dance. Moreover, in conjunction with Computer Science Education Week in early December, the upper school students bring their projects to the lower school. They create lessons that organize, simplify, and explain their work in terms younger students understand and are excited by, culminating in the older students teaching a science class for the second grade. Similarly, the upper school computing class conducts a demonstration of its robots during a middle school assembly. Putting students in the role of teachers — having to consider the age level of the audience and create appealing and educational activities — transforms individual learning into more active, social learning. It connects learning and learners.

These projects led to further collaboration between the upper and lower schools. The lower school science teacher now incorporates robotics into her fifth-grade curriculum and a second-grade teacher offers an after-school robotics program for second through fourth grades. In both cases, upper school students are valuable assistants. These programs have opened up conversations between students, the computer science coordinator, and lower school teachers about a solid, continuous curriculum in computing and engineering from the lower through the upper school.

Ideas from inside the classroom will ultimately be tested in the world outside. When classroom knowledge finds a destination in real-world experiences, the learning process develops stronger routes and more detailed pathways, establishing a lifelong correlation between learning and one’s environment. Collaboration — the art of working with others — is a deepening element to add to classroom instruction to ensure this positive outcome.


Three-dimensional teaching endorses the kind of ideation or original thinking that engages learning on a deeper level and may remain with the student for the long term. The notions of creativity have expanded in recent years to move beyond the realm of artistic expression and creative writing to include, among other things, formulating ideas and engaging in problem solving and alternative forms of communication. As opposed to teacher-directed projects, ideation implies individuated student questions fueled by critical thinking and resulting in original content creation. This content creation might be an essay, a dialogue, artwork, an experiment, or developing alternative solutions to many types of problems. Content creation develops the affective behavioral skills of fluency, flexibility, resilience, and perseverance, all of which are crucial to lifelong learning.

Adding creativity to the traditional classroom dynamic stresses a different type of skill from that of collaboration. Creativity showcases originality and individuality and fosters the development of a personal-learning paradigm and network. Idea creation guides a student through her personal lines of inquiry and methods of inquiring.

The culminating project for one of The Baldwin School’s upper school English units is the dream media essay. The dream media essay, viewed just before the Martin Luther King, Jr. national holiday, is an opportunity for students to combine personal ideas with general concepts through an unconventional use of technology. Students consider their own dreams by following a series of writing prompts, incorporating the reading list or personal reading as well as history, pop culture, and their imaginations. Their writing often begins as a freeform interweaving of these seemingly unconnected sources. Connections and order develop through the revision process. When the freeform writing is ultimately distilled to a two-to-three page narrative, the students transform their essays through the use of visual images and auditory effects. The final product is a short film, an online video that reflects their ideas and dreams in an easily shared, multidimensional format.

Students recognize and respect the school for valuing their visions and dreams. Nonetheless, it may be that students are the most suitable judges for their own and each other’s expression of their dreams. Students discuss the videos as seriously as if they were formal written papers. Later, on the semester exam, when students write an analytic essay on canonical authors’ articulations of their protagonists’ dreams, they have personalized the concept of expressing a dream. Students have their own experience for judging the dreams of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jay Gatsby and Zora Neale Hurston’s Janie Crawford. Students engage with concepts and debate ideas with more elaborate detail and authentic passion after they experience the joys of exploring their own ideas about their lives.


Interdisciplinary studies encourage students to, in writer Jonah Lehrer’s phrase, “trespass on the standard boundaries of thought.” One way to trespass on these boundaries within a given discipline is to consider the reasoning or processes of another discipline. The “trespass” creates an element of surprise, and the juxtaposition allows students to transcend conventional thinking within a discipline. Unconventional or original thinking arises from these remote associations, which can lead to innovation.

If education is viewed as a social construct, then the disciplines within it are a social construct as well. In Out of Our Minds: Learning to Be Creative, Ken Robinson discusses this construct in terms of the Enlightenment-era split of science and art into distinct domains. A 3D classroom reconnects this split by bringing unexpected domains together.

An example of interdisciplinary work at The Baldwin School was the recent confluence of art-making and environmental studies. The ninth-grade art foundations class was challenged to use a nontraditional material — plastic — to study and communicate findings about water quality in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Overlapping pieces of differently colored plastic (essentially the hue, value, and intensity of color theory studies) recorded levels of water purity and points of origin of contaminants.

The visualization of the water quality cartography doesn’t solve the problems of the contamination itself. The making of an artistic composition, however, may open up a scientific question beyond its specific phrasing. Viewing a composition in an abstract way — from all four sides of the “canvas” — can give a student experience in rephrasing questions and seeing a question from a longer, more critical stance. “How else can this be seen?” is a major function of art. Such visual questions may be the kind of discipline juxtaposition that could lead to a breakthrough in solving a scientific problem. As students become more adept with imaginative manifestations of questions, remote associations can enter the equation. At the same time that students are seeing a scientific question in a different way, they are also engaged in one of the highest functions of art: turning a material into a medium.

Both collaborative and creative, an interdisciplinary approach combines learning paradigms in an unconventional manner, reflecting the realities of our world.

Beyond “Fluff or Fun”

What happens to learning when the traditional instructional paradigm adds another dimension? The third dimension brings education to life through the domains that are in demand outside the school walls: creativity, collaboration, and thinking across boundaries. Nonetheless, several challenges exist in making the 3D classroom a successful experience. The paradigm shift from the 2D to the 3D teaching and learning must be more than “fluff and fun.” Its seriousness must be recognized and valued by students, administrators, and parents. Some teachers may feel uncomfortable with colleagues or members of the community having an influential voice in their classroom. In schools with top-down leadership, some teachers may be held hostage by standardized testing and preset objectives. And, as with any cultural shift in a school community, there will be those who resist and those who need support and guidance.

The third dimension brings education to life through the domains that are in demand outside the school walls: creativity, collaboration, and thinking across boundaries.
In our experience, however, it is worth working through the challenges. The 3D classroom is a grassroots initiative that attempts to organically incorporate both local and global learning environments. Students learn from a diverse array of models, most notably each other; they learn by making, and they learn by bringing their interests together. When teachers value and make use of these natural learning processes, the classroom experience can improve exponentially. Our research proposed that we find these powerful classrooms, showcase them, and demystify the process for others. We found that, at The Baldwin School, what’s new in education is an added variable to deepen meaning and increase flexibility to this new generation of learners.


Patrick F. Bassett, 12/16/schools-of-the-future-by-pat-bassett.

Carol Dweck. Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Random House, 2006.

Howard Gardner. Five Minds for the Future. Harvard Business Review Press, 2006.

Daniel Pink. A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future. Riverhead Trade, 2005.

Ken Robinson. Out of Our Minds: Learning to be Creative. Capstone, 2001/2011.

Jonah Lehrer. Imagine: How Creativity Works. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012.
Diane Senior

Diane Senior ([email protected]) has taught AT English 12; 9th-, 10th-, and 11th-grade English; journalism; creative writing; and a variety of senior semester courses on literature and film at the Baldwin School in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, since 2006.

Janice Wilke

Janice Wilke is the upper school art department chair at The Baldwin School (Pennsylvania).

Laura Blankenship

Laura Blankenship is the dean of academic affairs and the middle and upper school computer science coordinator at The Baldwin School in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.