PBL Adapter vs. Inventor: Who’s better?

During workshops sometimes participants ask about whether they need to create a project from scratch to be “real” PBL?  I explain two different approaches to becoming a PBL teacher. The first approach is the Adapter. This teacher finds a great project idea somewhere, tweaks and adapts it, and makes it their own to use with her students. The second approach is the Inventor. This teacher starts from scratch and comes up with their own PBL idea creating a powerfully unique project for her students.

The bias of many people is that the Inventor is actually at a higher level of PBL, than the mere Adapter. Therefore PBL coaches should push all teachers to become PBL Inventors.

My Personal Experience

I would say that I am by nature an Inventor. I love curriculum and enjoy the process of creating something new, out of the box that is mine. When I taught history I created my own projects that reflected my passions around the content and were relevant to students. I definitely was a PBL snob that would say that the Inventor is superior to an Adapter. I would even go so far as to say that I had some unhealthy pride in this area.

But then I started teaching a PBL math class. I didn’t invent any projects, but stole ideas from all over the web. I did not have the same depth of knowledge in the subject.

I had a whole new, and I would add humbling, perspective on why some people are PBL Adapters.

In history, I was a PBL Inventor, but in math I was a PBL Adapter. For the first time I realized that both paths were equal in bringing high quality PBL to my students.

False Hierarchy

In our American culture, we worship the Inventor. We have popular TV shows like Shark Tank (and it’s a popular PBL concept too) based around being an entrepreneur. The truth is that nothing happens in a vacuum. The first iPhone did not fall out of Steve Jobs ear (hat tip to Feroze). Before the iPhone we had pagers and then flip phones and even Blackberries with internet. Going back further we had car phones and cordless phones in our homes. We could go back to Alexander Graham Bell and even the telegraph, if we wanted to.

The point is, that in reality everything is a progressive customization of something that already exists. The projects that I “invented from scratch” included:

  • an entry event idea that I stole from a teacher blog
  • standards required of me by my state
  • protocols that I learned from a conference that I went to
  • online tools that I found from educators on Twitter
  • a challenging problem that a community partner gave me
  • a culminating art piece that I took from an event in my community

So not only is there is no hierarchy of the quality between being an Inventor or Adapter, they really aren’t different approaches at all. Rather PBL is a spectrum of how much you customize ideas and from how many different places the ideas come from.


The key to growing as a PBL teacher is not whether you are an Inventor or Adapter, but the degree to which you “own” the PBL planning process. What matters is that the project that you put in front of students is yours. It is not something appropriated without modifications, but you have tweaked it based on your skillset and your students abilities and needs.

If you own a project, then it reflects both your comfort level with PBL and also thoughtful intention to make content accessible and engaging for your students. So don’t even worry about where you are on the spectrum of customizing.

Instead ask yourself, have I owned the planning process to the extent that this is the best project that I can implement for the greatest impact on my students?

Designing curriculum is a skillset of its own, separate from teaching. It is not taught in teacher education schools or even most graduate classes unless you specialize in curriculum. Some amazing teachers are not strong Inventors of their own lessons and there is no shame in that as they may be amazing facilitators of student experiences in the classroom!

Questions? Interested in SEL and PBL Consulting?  Connect with me at michaelkaechele.com or @mikekaechele onTwitter.