By Rachel Morris

In differentiated classrooms, teachers begin with two critical “givens”: there are content requirements—often in the form of “standards”—that will serve as destination points for their students, and there are students who will inevitably vary as learners. Thus, teachers in differentiated classrooms accept and act on the premise that they must be ready to engage students in instruction through different approaches to learning, by appealing to a range of interests, and by using varied rates of instruction along with varied degrees of complexity and differing support systems. In differentiated classrooms, teachers ensure that students compete against themselves as they grow and develop more than they compete against one another, always moving toward—and often beyond—designated content goals.

— Carol Ann Tomlinson (2014), Differentiated Classroom: Responding to the Needs of All Learners, p. 3


In any public library, there are bound to be users as diverse as the collection itself (perhaps more diverse than the collection itself). In the new young adult romance section, a Black teenage girl with an anxiety disorder beginning to question her sexuality is having trouble finding a novel starring someone just like her. In the non-fiction section, a first-generation Mexican immigrant is looking for college prep books specifically designed for students with English as a second language. A 13-year-old boy on crutches is struggling to navigate the bookshelves without assistance. A 17-year-old student is just looking for a fun fantasy novel where diversity is a natural part of the worldbuilding. How do you design your collection, space, and services to address all these users’ needs? One answer is by using the principles of differentiation and universal design.

What are Differentiation and Universal Design?

Educator Carol Ann Tomlinson’s (2014) description of differentiated classrooms can be distilled into a definition of differentiation: It is a flexible approach to instruction featuring an adaptable curriculum meant to maximize the learners’ potential. In the classroom, differentiated instruction can be something as simple as subtitles on a film to something as complex as an assignment that allows learners to choose the media form their project takes. So, how do we determine what educational choices are actually helping learners, and what is just lip service to the idea of differentiation? To transform this abstract, theoretical concept into an actionable curriculum, universal design enters the scene.

In 1984, a group of education researchers founded the Center for Applied Special Technology, now known as CAST. Its mission was to discover ways to use technology to make education more accessible to disabled students. Through their research, they came to the realization that “the burden of adaptation should be first placed on curricula, not the learner” (CAST, 2011). To address this deficiency within the education system, CAST developed an entirely new paradigm for education: universal design for learning (henceforth referred to as UDL). To this day, CAST promotes UDL and continues to research and develop innovative ways to address difference in education (

In essence, differentiation is a way of thinking, a manner of tailoring teaching methods to the diversity of any given group of learners. Universal design is an implementation of these differentiation principles. These concepts encompass a holistic approach to education with an emphasis on one core tenet: growth for all learners. This is achieved through giving them the tools they need to be constant learners.

There are several attributes intrinsic to a differentiated learning environment. A differentiated setting is:

  • Adaptive. Most educators are aware of adaptive technologies for disabled learners, but the concept of adaptations extends into every aspect of the education environment. Large print text, audio recordings, visual interpretations, and a slew of other adaptations address the multiplicities of learning preferences in the classroom and often enhance the learning experience for every child and teen.
  • Malleable. In addition to appropriate adaptive materials, differentiation requires constant fluidity and a malleable attitude toward every aspect of education. This means not only reconsidering your mental approach but also reevaluating your physical space. This means making and implementing preemptive, deliberate decisions regarding the setup of the educational area (for example, ensuring rows of bookshelves or desks are accessible for wheelchair users).
  • Flexible/variable. Flexibility and variability are desired attributes of lesson plans and learning activities. Flexibility means allowing for impromptu shifts in a lesson actively taking place, as everyone who has taught knows there are infinite outside factors that can change the course of a lesson. And if the questions or ideas of learners change the lesson, that can be a very good thing educationally for everyone involved—if the teacher has worked flexibility into the plan from the beginning! Conversely, variability applies to the means of evaluation regarding learning. A variable lesson, activity, or assignment is one that allows learners to either choose a presentation method that allows them to complete the task to their fullest potential or that allows for easy modification, if necessary. Sometimes inviting learners to present their own alternatives to an assignment is helpful, as well.
  • Outcomes based. Outcomes-based education, or OBE, is, in its simplest form, an educational approach that begins with a measurable goal or goals and helps students achieve that goal or goals. For example, if the goal is for a learner to master basic addition skills, it may be easy to evaluate whether they have met that goal: Simply administer a test (a variable approach would let this test be taken in writing, through an oral exam, or another means of evaluation). However, if the goal is for a learner to develop a social conscience, this may need to be broken down into concrete, achievable goalposts. Means of evaluation, transparent to the student, may need to be implemented as well. Backward design, the process of designing a lesson plan or curriculum around the end goal rather than putting together a plan before considering the overall purpose (as discussed in Chapter 3), aids with outcomes-based education immensely.
  • Oriented on student growth and success. What is the purpose of education if it is not about learning? Differentiation means careful consideration of the various abilities in the classroom and fostering each learner’s growth, as well as instilling the belief that each one of them can succeed and that there is not one path to success.
  • One that believes in learners and pushes them beyond their comfort zone. Support from their teachers and other role models in their lives is essential to learner growth and success. A positive relationship with the public library staff may result in engagement with programs and on-the-spot academic help. If treated with respect, belief in their skill, and high expectations, learners will set (and meet) personal, high goals.
  • Dynamic and diverse. If we are to consider the differences among our learners, cultural competency is critical. Differentiation is as multi-faceted, multi-layered, and diverse as the youth who visit our libraries. Addressing, acknowledging, and celebrating the various cultures present is not merely nice; it’s essential for learners’ self-worth and development into adults who believe in their own power.
  • Focused on challenging oneself rather than fulfilling curriculum standards. Competition against others can result in severe stress, potential bullying, and an all-consuming negative atmosphere. Measuring learners’ progress against their previous work is more productive on an objective level, as it is a direct comparison to previous methods of assessment and can help determine what feedback and evaluation works best for an individual. It also has a more positive effect on the learner’s sense of self-worth.
  • Empathetic. Differentiation means always considering the emotional, mental, and physical aspects of a learner’s wellbeing. This is the heart of a differentiated environment. In many traditional learning environments, all that matters is producing the desired result: memorization of information, or passing a test. With differentiation and universal design, children and teens learn in the best way for them.

What Differences Exist that This Model of Design Addresses?

The purpose of differentiation and universal design is to address the rich multiplicity of differences that exist among individual learners, as much as realistically possible. However, there are marginalized groups for whom differentiation and universal design are particularly essential.

LGBTQ+ Learners

The current estimate of LGBTQ+ people in the United States is between 4 and 10 percent of the overall population. This means that you will more than likely have at least one LGBTQ+ learner. Consider these statistics from PFLAG New York City (n.d.):

  • LGBTQ+ teens are eight times more likely to attempt suicide and five times more likely to be depressed than their peers, and if their family disowns them, they are more likely to use drugs.
  • Half of gay boys’ parents disapprove of their sexual orientation, and 25 percent of them are kicked out of their homes.
  • Anywhere from 25 to 50 percent of homeless teens are LGBTQ+.
  • Harassment is also a problem: one in five teens are assaulted because of their sexuality; one in ten because of their gender expression; and two-thirds of LGBTQ+ teens have been sexually harassed.
  • Because of this harassment, LGBTQ+ teens have an average GPA half a grade lower than their peers.

Even if your LGBTQ+ learners are still at home, they are more than likely being bullied. And if they are homeless, they need very specific help and support.

Learners of Color and Native Learners

The racial diversity within public schools is increasing annually. Youth of color now make up the majority of students attending U.S. public schools (Krogstad & Fry, 2014). Yet youth of color and Native youth face substantial inequities within the public school system. For example, according to federal data released in 2018, Black students make up 15 percent of students nationally, but they account for 45 percent of all school days lost due to suspensions (Whitaker, 2018). More federal data show that schools with predominantly Black and/or Hispanic student populations have less-experienced teachers, overcrowded and outdated facilities, fewer computers, and fewer advanced course offerings compared to predominantly-white schools (Norwood, 2016). In the public library, it is critical that we attempt to mitigate some of the racial inequities faced by students of color and Native students in their school experiences. If your school systems do not support the minority students, or in underfunded places where minority students are the majority, the public library is an excellent place to begin differentiated instruction as one support.

Learners Living in Poverty

Socioeconomic status is a slippery and frequently misunderstood concept. According to the American Psychological Association (APA):

Socioeconomic status (SES) encompasses not just income but also educational attainment, financial security, and subjective perceptions of social status and social class. Socioeconomic status can encompass quality of life attributes as well as the opportunities and privileges afforded to people within society. Poverty, specifically, is not a single factor but rather is characterized by multiple physical and psychosocial stressors. … SES is relevant to all realms of behavioral and social science, including research, practice, education and advocacy. (American Psychological Association, n.d., p. 1)

Accordingly, socioeconomic status has huge implications for service in the public library: “Schools with students from the highest concentrations of poverty have fewer library resources to draw on (fewer staff, libraries are open fewer hours per week, and staff are less well rounded) than those serving middle-income children” (APA, n.d., p. 2). Even if your library is strapped for resources, approaching your limited options with differentiation in mind will maximize the effect your programs and space have on the disadvantaged young learners who need that external support.

Learners with Disabilities

During the 2015-16 school year, 6.7 million or 13 percent of students received special education services (National Center for Education Statistics, 2018). Among children and teens served under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), 35 percent had a specific learning disability, 20 percent had a speech or language impairment, 13 percent had a different health impairment, 9 percent were autistic, 6 percent had an intellectual disability, 6 percent experienced developmental delays, 5 percent experienced emotional disturbance, 2 percent experienced multiple disabilities, 1 percent had hearing impairments, and 1 percent had orthopedic impairments. Clearly, a diversity of disability exists, and the public library must be equipped to serve disabled patrons. Much of universal design is specifically targeted to assist disabled populations. Developmental differentiation also benefits gifted students who are bored by the undifferentiated curriculum. Unfortunately, the Goldilocks analogy often applies to learning experiences designed for youth and children: Things are either too hard or too soft, and never just right.

How do I Acknowledge and Address These Differences?

The official Universal Design for Learning Guidelines posits three principles that form the framework of UDL (CAST, 2011):

  • Representation (the “what”): Everybody absorbs information differently. People with sensory issues may not be able to handle some audiovisual materials, while that may be the only way for someone who struggles with text to learn. Representation does not just affect disabled individuals; language barriers can necessitate visual representations of information, while cultural differences may affect how learners respond to certain materials. Moreover, some people simply learn better by listening, by reading, by moving their bodies. Diverse methods of representation are essential in differentiating a learning environment.
  • Action/Expression (the “how”): A common practice is for learners to be required to regurgitate information in the same manner it was received, for example, reciting multiplication tables. This rigid, rote memorization does not allow for different means of expressing one’s comprehension. In some cases, variations in physical or cognitive abilities may make it impossible for all students to present their understanding of information in a uniform manner. Personal preference is also a legitimate reason to provide various ways to assess learning. For example, a history project may allow learners to create a video, perform a song, or build a diorama according to their personal choice.
  • Engagement (the “why”): The subjectivity of every individual means they are affected by and affect their learning experience. How a librarian or teacher attempts to engage a learner can differ dramatically based on that subjectivity. Some learners respond well to open-ended brainteasers that would embarrass and frustrate others. Some learners love close observation and guidance, while others are uncomfortable with strict attention and wish to have time to explore their learning environment on their own terms. Differentiation allows for all these learners to be engaged on multiple levels and in a variety of ways.

Beyond these three core principles, there are several other concrete ways to support these differences in the public library setting. We will explore some of these in the sections below.

Multiple Intelligences

Understanding the concept of multiple intelligences is a great way to begin shifting toward universal design. In the 1970s and 1980s, Harvard Professor Howard Gardner developed the “multiple intelligences” theory to steer the psychological community away from the notion that there is only a single kind of intelligence. Gardner’s eight intelligences are spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, musical, linguistic, logical-mathematical, inter-personal, intrapersonal, and naturalistic (the Components of MI, n.d.). It is not a means of pigeonholing learners (the “artistic” learners should not always draw, the “scientific” learners should not always do science fair projects), but an opportunity to provide different means of assessment for the same information. For example, a project about Jane Austen’s work could allow for a textual analysis, a creative writing reinterpretation, a dramatic film or play, a map of one of the estates, or myriad other options that engage learners on various levels that they themselves choose.

What’s Your MI?

Take a quiz to assess your own learning preferences within Gardner’s multiple intelligences framework at

How Can I Create a Differentiated Learning Environment in the Public Library Setting?

The UDL Project offers a “Daily UDL Checklist” ( that encompasses multiple intelligences, technology, and the UDL Guiding Principles. This checklist is an easy way to get started with universal design in the public library and should help you keep in mind all the many forms that differentiation can take.

Another cognitive tool that can help you differentiate your environment and instruction involves breaking differentiation down into four components: content, process, product and environment. In the article “Everyone Wins: Differentiation in the School Library,” Carol Koechlin and Sandi Zwaan (2008) outlined what each of those components may look like in a library setting:

  • Content: Content refers to the library’s collection of materials and resources. Specifically, a librarian may consider developing their collection around the principles of differentiation, applicable for various ages and abilities. This may mean expanding a collection to include resources in non-English languages; ensuring the collection is diverse through multiple lenses       including race, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, and socioeconomic status; and collecting materials in a variety of formats, such as audiobooks, materials in braille, and other items to make the library experience more accessible.
  • Process: Process can include collaboration with school librarians and teachers to ensure learners are receiving differentiated support from every avenue available to them. Providing scaffolded support to learning, multiple ways of recording and organizing information, resource-finding challenges, research and information literacy instruction, general support, and assessment tools are all important parts of the learning process made more accessible through differentiation.
  • Product: Product refers to the expression part of the UDL guidelines. Public libraries are excellent places to compile stellar examples of finished products relevant to various ability levels and types of final product (for example, learner-created films, papers, games, and presentations). Libraries can collect a variety of media tools and instruct learners about usage rights in real time, lending a higher order of thinking to whatever project a learner takes to the public library.
  • Environment: Environment is particularly critical in the public library, and often serves as the first critical access point for many, especially disabled people or those of low socioeconomic status who find transportation to the library difficult. However, it is not enough to add a bus stop, handicap parking, and a wheelchair-accessible entrance (though these are essential). There must be multiple welcoming spaces in the library for productivity, resources available for learners at every level, spaces that can move depending on learners’ needs (movable furniture and room dividers, for example), technology and tools suited for a variety of projects, spaces with noise restrictions and spaces without for collaborative work and more freedom, evaluative tools, and simple support from the library staff during the entire learning process.

Creativity and adaptability are central features of each of these differentiation aspects. In addition to these methods, the public librarian is in a unique position to offer real-time help to learners. A public librarian with a differentiated mindset is responsive to learning styles and patron’s needs, both expressed and unexpressed.


Spotlight: Differentiation at the Brooklyn Public Library

To see a best-practices example of the UDL guidelines and differentiation in the public library, consider John Huth, Young Adult Librarian at the Brooklyn Public Library. On his website, Huth describes himself as a “young adult inclusion librarian who collaborates with community partners to provide high quality information services to underserved young people,” and his job tasks include community partnerships, outreach, and the design and implementation of inclusive library programs (Huth, n.d.). He emphasizes his role as an inclusive information professional for underserved populaitons and highlights the importance of collaboration.

One of his inclusive library programs has received some media attention: The Universal Makerspace. Inspired by programs such as DIYability ( that promote accessible makerspaces, Huth began an accessible arcade and expanded that concept into a Universal Makerspace after observing the DIY fixes disabled patrons created to make gaming more accessible. The Universal Makerspace features a variety of low- and high-tech equipment. It is housed in a room with glass windows, so people can look inside, as he does not want disabled learners to be hidden. Everyone is welcome, though priority is given to disabled people. Activities often feature collaboration. One workshop featured stop-motion animation and involved the organization CinemaKidz, which brought in hand puppets for those with limited mobility. A sneaker decorating workshop featured Don D’vil, who runs sneaker workshops and educates youth attendees (Bayliss, 2015).

What else does Huth do? A lot. For his accessible arcade, he hires disabled interns to instill pride and community and sets concrete goals, such as the “Rule of Three,” which requires there be three different gaming systems, screens, and controllers available (Banks, n.d.). In a Q&A session for Equal Entry, he described his latest project as one involving low-tech shadow art at a high school. His words of wisdom: “Accessibility isn’t just about building a tool that solves problems although that is important. It’s also about making accessibility happen in the moment, as events unfold in real time” (Equal Entry, n.d., para. 3).

The Brooklyn Public Library also features accessibility on its main website on a page dedicated to Inclusive Services ( They offer sensory storytimes appropriate for children with sensory issues or autism, a read and play program for nondisabled and disabled children to engage with books and toys, an afterschool crafts program, a garden club, a LEGO club, and class visits tailored to individual learners’ needs. By highlighting this information and specifically stating their mission is to foster an inclusive environment, the Brooklyn Public Library provides an excellent practical example of universal design in the field (Brooklyn Public Library, 2018).


That Sounds Great, But How do I Assess the Success of my Design?

One primary goal of differentiation is to create expert learners, rather than forcing students to master content without a purpose. What is an expert learner? The UDL guidelines again provide a definition in threes. An expert learner is (1) resourceful and knowledgeable, (2) strategic and goal-directed, and (3) purposeful and motivated. Expert learners are self-motivated individuals, able to synthesize prior knowledge with their current learning environment. They are higher-order thinkers who can organize and outline goals, plans, and purposes for their education. They can challenge themselves and practice responsible studying methods (CAST, 2011). In short, expert learners are equipped to grow and succeed. Assessing for expertise in learning looks quite different from the types of standardized, formal assessments typically used in schools.

We will explore a variety of assessment techniques in Chapter 10 of this book. For now, reflect on what you might look for as evidence that your children and teens have reached the expert learner standard. Regardless of what specific evidence you collect, remember that assessment should always be connected to your learning goals and planned in advance of the instructional experience, as described in Chapter 3 (Backward Design in the Public Library).


In the end, the goal of differentiation and universal design is to maximize the benefits of your public library’s resources, space, and services for every individual you serve. By keeping these principles in mind and expanding upon them in the way that best suits your unique community, you will begin to make your library more accessible for every learner and ultimately curate a space that is truly for the public.


Next Page


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