Adaptation Matters in Teaching and Learning


A good meal is a response to what’s in the fridge and who’s sitting at the table. Adaptation matters – in cooking AND in teaching and learning. Even our favorite recipes require flexibility depending on the stove, the pots, and the altitude. Our curriculum requires adaptation to best support our particular students, to best fit with our particular environment, and to best harmonize with our particular style of teaching.

We—the Composing our World co-design team, made up of educators and educational researchers—just came out with a new iteration of one of our project-based curricular units, the “What Happened Here” project.   I was one of the primary writers of the revisions for this project, and I worked in concert with others to create two example pathways for teaching this project. Yesterday, a team member asked me what I thought about the new version of the project materials. This post is a summary of what I said in response.

We worked hard to make the threads that run through the project cohesive, inquiry-based, complex, and challenging. We thought through ways to support students to think critically on their own, in small teams, and as a whole-class. We made sure the project challenge was clear from the start, and that all activities and practices designed for students to engage in throughout the project built on one another to cultivate the skills and knowledge needed to create the public product. We put together materials that could support a really interesting project for 9th grade students.

Still, a recipe is nothing without a cook. And a cook works to make something delicious, according to their own preferences, tastes, and the likes of their guests in mind. A curriculum needs a teacher who will consider the adaptations needed to make the materials come to life for their particular community of learners.   I do not believe our materials will “work” unless a teacher thinks intentionally about how to make the materials their own.

The teacher has the challenging task of taking the materials and considering which aspects will work to engage their classroom community, including themself. Students can tell when their teacher doesn’t believe in what they’re teaching; a key aspect to success is that the teacher and the students both believe what they are doing is worthwhile, that it matters.

In project-based learning, and on the Composing Our World team in particular, we think a lot about authenticity. A learning challenge must feel authentic to the students, to an outside audience, and must use authentic tools. But in a community of learners, it is imperative that the teacher identifies as a learner as well (Rogoff, 1994), therefore it is imperative that the challenge feels authentic to the teacher themself. Just as we hope students will engage with a challenge by considering the tools, practices, and knowledge needed, teachers must engage with the challenge of making curricular materials work for themselves and their students.

suppliesAs we iterate on our curricular materials, we aim to make them more responsive to teachers’ and students’ needs. I am excited by the newest revisions to our various projects, and believe they could provide some awesome ingredients to create exciting, thought-provoking learning endeavors. Still, no matter how many improvements we make to the resources, teachers must maneuver, select, and manipulate these materials to make them their own.

How do you select and manipulate what to do with your students when faced with a heap of resources?



Rogoff, B. (1994). Developing understanding of a community of learners. Mind, Culture, and Activity, 1(4): 209-229


November 2016
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  1. Maravene Taylor-Heine
    November 20, 2016

    I completely agree that these projects are only valuable insofar as teachers adapt them to suit their unique classroom contexts. Thank you for writing this, Becca Kaplan!

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