Twice exceptional learners Spikey profiles

We need every form of human intelligence on the planet, working together to tackle the challenges we face as a society. We can't afford to waste a brain.

During Gifted Awareness Week 2016, I have been thinking about these wise words from autistic woman, Zosia Zaks and quoted by Steve Silberman, in his March 2015 TED talk, The Forgotten History of Autism.

We can't afford to waste a brain. We can't afford to waste the brains of our diverse learners - our gifted learners, our children with Autism Spectrum Disorder, ADD, our twice and multiple exceptional students - who in many classrooms, are still required to fit into the 'one size fits all' model.

British Intelligence Agency, GCHQ revealed at the end of 2014 that they employ more than 100 dyslexic and dyspraxic spikey skills profile spies. They harness the unique skills of this group such as their 3D spatial awareness skills, ability to analyse complex information and to see patterns that other's don't.

Dyslexic and Dyspraxic spies

Spikey Skills Profiles

Twice/multi exceptional students (gifted students with learning difficulties) have spikey skills profiles.

They have exceptional strengths in certain areas and challenges in other areas. We know that these students are very difficult to identify as their abilities can mask their difficulties and their difficulties can mask their abilities. They often appear as average students in class. Commonly these students, come across as intelligent, good thinkers, that can articulate well but then struggle to show that ability when they have to write or organise ideas on paper. It can be enormously frustrating when the primary method of assessment is writing.

Twice exceptional students (2E) have enormous potential, and it is essential to focus on their strengths first, to give opportunities for success, and then to provide strategies to support weaknesses. This can be difficult for some teachers to manage, as 2E students may not produce written work or assessments of the quality of other more typical students. However, it does not mean that the level of understanding is not there. Special assessment conditions can help to remove barriers to achievement so students can demonstrate their knowledge and skills. To be approved by NZQA, evidence of the specific learning difficulty needs to be provided.

A cognitive ability assessment such as the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children (WISC - IV) can indicate that a student is twice exceptional by the discrepancies between the sub test scores - showing a spikey profile.

The WISC graph above is for a twice exceptional student with exceptional strengths in verbal and non verbal reasoning, a slow processing speed and low working memory. The child presents as a Gifted Visual Spatial Learner with dyslexic characteristics. The recommendations from these assessments are incredibly useful for teachers to help support 2E learners. For example:

  • Limit the amount of work that needs to be copied by giving notes, hand outs etc
  • Encourage the use of mind maps, graphic organsers, writing frameworks to help organise ideas when planning for written work
  • Make sure sufficient time is given to finish written work if require to handwrite
  • Allow notes on the white board to be photographed
  • Allow the use of a computer for all class work and assessments
  • Support verbal instructions with visual prompts
  • Keep instructions brief and chunk information

Future- Oriented Learning approaches could benefit 2E learners

By the end of 2020, all NCEA external exams (appropriate for an online format) will be online. This will help to create a more level playing field for twice exceptional students in terms of assessment.

Hand written essays soon to be a thing of the past?

Professor Welby Ings, in the Death of the Essay? proposes that traditional essay writing will be replaced by a range of media such as sound files, live links, animated charts. Has the written essay become an old and limited form of communication?

How will this change our teaching and learning practices?

"Diversity" needs to be recognised as a strength for a future-oriented learning system, something to be actively fostered, not a weakness that lowers the system's performance.

New views of equity, diversity and inclusivity is one of the emerging principles from Bolstad and Gilbert's (2012) research project on future-oriented learning. The report brings together 10 years of research on current educational practice and futures- thinking.

'Unbundling' learning is discussed as a way to deconstruct the current education system and re -build it in smarter and newer ways to better reflect the demands and 'wicked problems' of the 21st century world. Personalising learning, finding new ways to address the needs of diverse learners, working with a diversity of ideas and rethinking teacher and learner roles, are just some of the emerging principles proposed.

This potential paradigm shift in education could be just what is needed to fully realise the potential of our diverse learners. If we support all learners to prepare for an ever changing future by rethinking our teaching and learning practices, then our students who learn differently may be the ones who benefit the most by allowing their unique abilities new contexts to develop in. As I highighted above, people with 'spikey skills profiles' are being employed because of these atypical skills and the additional value they can add to a role.

Global Communications Headquarters, United Kingdom

Removing systemic barriers addresses inequality

With digital assessment going online, new visions of education being proposed which may remove barriers to learning and enhancements in pedagogy such as personalising learning, collaboration, critical thinking, creative thinking becoming mainstream, what does this mean for our future spikey profile learners?

It is my hope that they will have many more rich opportunities for their unique abilities to develop. To leave secondary school prepared for a complex and uncertain world with their social and emotional needs met and having found their turangawaewae - place to stand.

We can't afford to waste a brain

Thomas Webster is a Year 10 student. He is twice exceptional. He is gifted and has dysgraphia.

He has written a 'Spoken Word' poem on how his brain is different to your brain.

My Brain My Brain

What is so different about my brain that makes it different from your brain?

Well, my brain works differently with different types of cogs turning round and round and round and round like a machine, but sometimes these cogs get stuck and my machine grinds to a halt.

The machine changes, a train going round and round in the same motion trying to do the same task, but any little thing caught on the tracks can make it completely ....stop.

My Brain

See when you think of rhyme, you think of Lime, Dime, Fine, Crime, Chime, and Grime ...whilst, when it comes into my brain, it just takes some time. Mine could be messy, losing attention or a bunch of mishmashed letters on a page, or sometimes even no page!

My Brain

See my brain can go so many places and graces, races ... see so many faces. My brain is a rocket ship going into the outer spaces.

Many people before me: Einstein, Edison, Disney, they’ve had the same brain. The one that can think outside the box, outside the living parameters and beyond the judges. They're the ones that have their thoughts sitting at the ends of their fingertips.

This is for the dreamers, the believers, the thinkers, the makers, the wall breakers….the ones that want to do something bigger.

My Brain

But see society showed us that the ideal person is the one they put forward to be the best, and society showed us that because we didn’t do well in this test, we can’t be the best.

Huh!! How Ironic!

Many people dictate my life. Past, Present, Future -telling me where I can, and cannot, go. But see, I can go to new heights, do whatever, whenever, however… and be whoever I wanna be.

And I have a question for you? What is your brain? What is your brain?

I want to challenge you to think your own thoughts, feel your own emotions, your own feelings, because it’s your brain. Like a little bird, be free in your world. Be yourself. Because at the end of day it’s not gonna hurt anyone, aye.

Your world is your oyster and don’t be stuck in that cloister, because that cloister is pulling you down. Where you see a disadvantage, find the opposite: the advantage and there’s a whole new world waiting for you!.

The world needs creators, innovators, debaters (not haters) because we are who we are and we can’t be taken away from it.

Be your own brain!

Be your own brain!


Bolstad, R., Gilbert, J., McDowall, S., Bull, A., Boyd, S., & Hipkins, R. (2012). Supporting future –oriented learning and teaching – a New Zealand perspective. Ministry of Education, New Zealand: NZCER

New Zealand Gifted Awareness Blog Tour 2016

About the Author

Catherine Watts is a specialist teacher in Gifted Education. She lives in Beachlands, Auckland with her photographer husband, 'spikey profile' son, avid reader and songbird daughter and hyperactive Jack Russell, Ziggy. In 2014 she completed her Postgraduate Certificate in Specialist Teaching (Gifted and Talented). She works as a Gifted Education Advocate at Saint Kentigern College and has a special interest in future learning, Philosophy for Children and twice exceptional learners.

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