Teachers’ perceptions of twice exceptional students and their teaching practices. A literature review by Wilma Skattang Stone
Published: June 1 2021
Written by: Wilma Skattang-Stone
According to Ronksley-Pavia (2020), in any given classroom today there will be at least two students who could be identified as Twice-Exceptional. Twice exceptionalism in learners can be defined as
Students who demonstrate the potential for high achievement or creative productivity in one or more domains such as math, science, technology, the social arts, the visual, spatial, or performing arts or other areas of human productivity AND who manifest one or more disabilities as defined by federal or state eligibility criteria. These disabilities include specific learning disabilities; speech and language disorders; emotional/behavioural disorders; physical disabilities; Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD); or other health impairments, such as Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) (Reis, Baum & Burke, 2014. p. 220).
While the above definition is widely accepted and used internationally, research indicates that many twice exceptional students are able to utilise their giftedness to counterbalance their areas of disability (Davis & Rimm, 2004; Krochak & Ryan, 2007). This phenomenon known as “masking” has led to many twice exceptional students being incorrectly identified or not identified at all (Haines et al., 2020).
Other complex issues related to twice-exceptional learners include the recent theoretical development revealing that twice-exceptional learners are considered to be most at risk of educational disengagement (Haines et al., 2020). While the nature of this disengagement has many layers. Reis, Baum & Burke (2014) suggest that a key aspect of this consideration lies in the complex nature of identifying a student as twice exceptional. To compound the problem, recent studies reveal that teachers across the profession feel underprepared to teach students who digress from the “mainstream” (Ronksley-Pavia, 2020). The combination of undereducated teachers and twice exceptional students who are masking their true abilities suggest that neither party is benefitting from the current situation.
Twice exceptionalism is still a relatively emerging term in academic literature and across the teaching profession, it is not surprising to find that the research on the topic is limited compared to other, similar areas of study such as gifted and inclusive education. Most of the literature surrounding twice exceptional students is found to be coming from the United States of America and the United Kingdom (UK). It should be noted that finding quality literature about the topic that had been written by Australian researchers for this study proved difficult.
While there is a lack of literature pertaining to twice-exceptional students coming from Australia, there is a growing community of parents and several educators that wish to see changes to the Australian education system (Wang & Neihart, 2015). The community argues that the main issue is the lack of recognition for twice exceptional students within both state and federal legislation (Marshall, 2020). Currently the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA, 2019) recognises that about 10% of students are gifted and talented as defined by Françoys Gagné’s Differentiated Gifted and Talented model (DGTM) (GEERIC, 2004) however, ACARA does not officially recognise the term twice exceptional anywhere in the curriculum.
As a direct result of the government's negligence to recognise these learners, the teacher's knowledge of twice exceptional students remains limited. Research has shown that Australian teachers are not being taught about twice exceptional students while completing their initial teacher education training and practising teachers are not being given the opportunity to focus their professional development on the topics as it is not a recognised term within the Australian education legislation. [WSS1] This indicates that twice exceptional students are disadvantaged in the current education climate of Australia. Therefore, this study aims to uncover teachers' understanding of twice exceptional students by understanding how teachers perceive twice exceptional students, this study will aim to develop an understanding of how this knowledge will influence teachers’ teaching practice.
This study seeks to answer the following research question:
What are teachers' perceptions of twice-exceptional students and how does it shape their teaching practices?
Analysis of literature relating to teachers’ perceptions of twice exceptional students and the effect these perceptions have on their teaching practises reveals three recurring themes that have shaped the writing of this paper. These themes are teachers’ perceptions of gifted education; teachers’ perceptions of inclusive education; learning strategies for twice exceptional students.
Perceptions of gifted education
Several studies suggest that when a child is labelled gifted the next step that follows for that child is being put into a gifted education program (Ronksley-Pavia, n.d.). Within the wide education academic community, discussing best practices in gifted education is common. Foley-Nicpon et al, (2013) suggest after surveying over 300 educators across the USA that teacher’s knowledge of gifted students’ presentations is vast, and they further surmise based on their survey that the majority of teachers will work with a large number of gifted students across their careers. However, recent studies have also shown that while teachers may be familiar with gifted students and can accommodate and modify the curriculum to a certain extent, teachers are not necessarily equipped with the tools they need to extend these students to their full potential (Bannister-Tyrrell et al., 2018). Foley-Nicpon et al, (2013) suggests that unless schools have specifically engineered gifted education programs, gifted students will not be extended in a mainstream class due to the lack of specific training that teachers receive. Further to this, studies show that while some schools in Australia have adopted “streamed” programs and extension is available to gifted students, many teachers still feel unprepared to teach students despite specialist training (Bannister-Tyrrell et al., 2018). These results indicate that future studies should focus on researching strategies that support teachers educating gifted learners; these findings are supported by Foley-Nicpon et al, (2013) suggestions for future areas of research.
While reviewing the literature, an unanticipated finding was that international studies show a substantial number of teachers either subconsciously or consciously feel negatively about gifted students (Geake & Gross, 2008). According to Geake & Gross (2008) teachers were found to struggle with the concept of young children having similar if not higher intellect than the teacher themselves and thus not appreciate the opportunity to further educate the children in various aspects of their learning. This finding is directly contrary to previous studies which have suggested that teachers enjoy working with gifted learners (Foley-Nicpon et al., 2013). While studies show that consistent professional development had a positive effect on teachers attitudes towards gifted students (Geake & Gross, 2008), the inconsistency in these findings suggest that future research around the topic of gifted education would benefit from exploring in depth how teachers’ perception of gifted and academically diverse learners directly affect their teaching practices.
Perceptions of inclusive education
A great deal of previous research into inclusive education has focused on how teachers can effectively educate students with disabilities in a mainstream educational context (Curcic, 2009). Several studies show that experienced teachers, who for the purpose of this study were defined as teachers having five or more years of experience, believe that one of the most important parts of inclusive education is building a relationship with the students (Berry, 2011; Curcic, 2009). Berry’s (2011) studies however suggest that while relationships are important within the classroom, a core skill for inclusive educators is knowing how to modify and adapt materials to suit the needs of a diverse classroom. While it is hard to pinpoint exactly what different initial teacher education courses teach about inclusion through an international lens, a recent study in Australia was able to audit university courses offering studies on inclusive education (Stephenson et al., 2012). Stephenson et al. (2012) were able to establish that most courses included in the study included one inclusive education unit. However, the research suggested that these units were only included as a direct result of changes to the Australian Professional Standards for Teachers (APST) (Stephenson et al., 2012). The implication of this is that while initial teacher education training may inform student teachers about the policy, pedagogy, and professional obligations regarding inclusive education, there seems to be little room left to explore the practicality of inclusive teaching (Stephenson et al., 2012). Furthermore, Curcic (2009) suggests that the issue of lacking practical skills lies in the lack of an internationally shared definition and standardised model of inclusion. The implication here is that until more research has been done on what practical inclusive strategies are most effective for the learners needs and how teachers can implement these the “practical and conceptual confusions [will] continue" (Berry, 2011, p. 628).
Learning strategies for twice exceptional learners
Currently there is a relatively small body of literature that is concerned with what learning strategies are beneficial for twice exceptional learners. A study done by Willard-Holt et al. (2013) explored the lived experiences of twice exceptional students and surveyed what learning strategies these students found most beneficial during their education. The result of this study indicated that twice exceptional students found it most important to have choices in their learning and to be able to be flexible in what they learnt, when (Willard-Holt et al., 2013). Further to this, the results of the study indicated that twice exceptional learners found learning from industry experts more beneficial than learning in the standard classroom (Willard-Holt et al., 2013). This view is supported by Amran & Majid (2019) who found that twice exceptional students benefit from effective intervention that utilises the individual's unique strengths and supports their needs.
The research shows that the interventions that worked the best with twice exceptional students were those that were strength based or talent based (Amran & Majid, 2019). Amran & Majid (2019) study highlights the importance of considering twice exceptional students' needs from a holistic point of view rather than just targeting their giftedness or their disability. Studies have shown that while there is no “one” approach that will fit all twice exceptional students, it is paramount that twice exceptional students get the support they need as many students report feeling disengaged, unsupported, and like no teacher understands them (Willard-Holt et al., 2013). It is important to bear in mind that the participants of both Willard-Holt et al. (2013) and Amran & Majid (2019) studies reported having stable home environments with adults that were able to support them in their needs. This indicates that the results reported in the studies should not be considered indicative of all twice exceptional students’ thoughts on effective learning strategies. Students with unstable home environments and lacking adult support may favour more structured learning strategies and teacher support as school may be the only place, they can receive this.
When conducting a literature review it is important to consider and review the various research methods that the researchers used to collect and analyse their data. As different research methods have their strengths and limitations, this affects the validity and reliability of the results presented (Kervin et al., 2016). The articles reviewed above have both commonalities and differences in their research methods. A commonality of the articles reviewed is that most of them use empirical research to conduct their studies meaning that they have used evidence obtained through observation and/or scientific data collection methods to arrive at their conclusions (Kervin et al., 2016). Within the research methods of each paper, a key difference that was identified was the nature of the data collection which saw some studies using quantitative methods while others used qualitative methods.
Foley-Nicpon et al. (2013) and Geake & Gross (2008) studies both fall under the quantitative research methods as both studies utilised survey instruments as well as collected and analysed the data gained from the survey (Kervin et al., 2016). Further similarities can be seen in these studies when looking at the number of participants. Both studies surveyed around 300 participants, which is considered to be a small-scale study as the results cannot be generalised without further research being undertaken (Kervin et al., 2016). Herein lies a big limitation of conducting small quantitative research studies. As there is a limited number of participants this often means that the analysis of the data is just surface level and cannot be analysed deeply for statistically significant findings (Kervin et al., 2016). This limitation is noted in both studies' conclusions with the suggestion that further research on the topic is advisable (Foley-Nicpon et al., 2013; Geake & Gross, 2008).
Further studies that utilised a quantitative research methods approach were Bannister-Tyrrell et al. (2018), Stephenson et al. (2012) and Amran & Majid (2019). As outlined in their papers the three above studies utilised a Boolean method approach to establish their initial search area when finding research, before conducting their study (Kervin et al., 2016). The benefit of this method is that it refines your search of the database and researchers are left with useful and appropriate papers to assess for their study (Kervin et al., 2016).
While the above papers are using a quantitative research approach to their studies, Willard-Holt et al. (2013), Curcic (2009) and Berry (2011) utilise a qualitative research method to conduct their studies. While each paper has chosen a different qualitative data collection approach with Berry (2011) conducting a case-study, Curcic (2009) conducting a meta-synthesis and Willard-Holt et al. (2013) using interviews, each study is concerned with analysing textual data gained from their collections (Kervin et al., 2016). Willard-Holt et als. (2013) study is of particular interest to this literature review as it utilised an exploratory sequential mixed method research design which could be utilised in future research done by the researcher of this paper. A particular benefit of this design is that the initial qualitative data collected informs the designing of the quantitative collection method (Kervin et al., 2016).
CONCLUSION & IMPLICATIONS FOR PRESENT STUDY
After reviewing the literature, the present study can conclude that no study to date has examined teachers’ perceptions of twice exceptional students and how these perceptions directly impact their teaching. This conclusion proves that the present studies research question has identified a gap in the literature and therefore holds merit to be researched. Within the present study, based on the analysis of the literature and the research methods reviewed, this research project will use a mixed method approach as outlined by Willard-Holt et al. (2013). Due to the time constraints of this research project, the present study will be a small-scale study. The qualitative data will be collected by interviewing a teacher and their responses will outline the quantitative data to be collected. However, based on the above literature, a survey instrument is the researcher’s preliminary choice of data collection instruments based on the ease of use and ease of interpretation of data (Kervin et al., 2016).
When planning for the present study there are significant considerations that will need to be made. As interviews can be particularly tricky to navigate for both the interviewer and the interviewee, it will be incredibly important to pick an interview technique as outlined by Kervin et al. (2016). This will ensure that the data collected from the interviews can be deemed as quality data and therefore used in the data analysis. Furthermore, it is important that the present study ensures validity and reliability for the research project by using measured and evaluated questions (Kervin et al., 2016). As with any research undertaken, arguably the most important part of the study is to ensure that ethical considerations are being made at every step of the research project (Kervin et al., 2016). The present study will ensure that informed consent is gained by all participants choosing to partake and that anonymity and confidentiality is always maintained throughout the research project (Kervin et al., 2016).
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