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  • Writer's pictureZoe Branigan-Pipe

Understanding and Nurturing the Dual-Exceptional Learner

By Zoe Branigan-Pipe

In my role as a Teacher within a gifted program, I've encountered many students who, despite academic and social struggles, exhibit remarkable skills in Makerspaces. These environments blend the arts with STEM and foster autonomous and passion-driven learning. This phenomenon raises questions about the intersection of giftedness and learning disabilities in students.

A poignant quote from a Grade 10 student captures this dichotomy:

“My teachers thought I was dumb”.
“I thought I was dumb.”

Yet, these students, identified as highly gifted and learning disabled, or "dual exceptional," demonstrate exceptional abilities outside conventional classroom settings.

The Misunderstood Nature of 2E Students

This concept of dual-exceptional students is often misunderstood. As Whitmore and Maker (1985) articulate, "Intellectually gifted individuals with specific learning disabilities are the most misjudged, misunderstood, and neglected segment of the student population" (Journal of Special Education, 19(2), 204). This misunderstanding stems from the common misconception that learning disabilities correlate with lower intelligence.

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) as a Solution

The Universal Design for Learning (UDL) framework offers a way forward. Developed by CAST, UDL is a scientifically based approach to creating versatile educational experiences. Its principles emphasize flexible teaching methods, materials, and assessments to cater to diverse learners, including those who are 2E​​.

UDL focuses on:

  1. Engagement: Motivating learners.

  2. Representation: Diversifying information presentation.

  3. Action & Expression: Varying expression methods.

By applying UDL, educators can more effectively support 2E students, focusing on their strengths and providing an inclusive learning environment.

Case Studies: Highlighting Hidden Potential

The stories of students who thrived in creative, hands-on environments, yet were overlooked academically, underscore the need for a reevaluation of how we assess and educate 2E learners. For instance, a student initially labeled as slow in learning revealed his gifted nature only after a psycho-educational assessment. Today, he excels in robotics, a field demanding skills not traditionally emphasized in school.

Another case involves a student whose school performance in English didn't reflect her exceptional ability to create award-winning speeches and presentations. This discrepancy illustrates the gap between traditional academic assessments and a student's actual capabilities and interests.

The Role of Educators and Parents

A flexible and creative approach in teaching and assessment is crucial for these dual exceptional students. This includes recognizing the diverse ways intelligence and creativity manifest. Educators and parents should be open to unconventional methods of evaluating and nurturing these students' abilities.

Conclusion: A Call for Rethinking Gifted Education

We must rethink our approach to educating gifted students, particularly those who are 2E. Giftedness encompasses more than conventional academic success; it includes a range of talents and aptitudes. By embracing UDL principles and acknowledging the unique strengths of 2E learners, we can foster more inclusive and effective educational environments.


  1. Whitmore, J. R., & Maker, C. J. (1985). Intellectual giftedness in disabled persons. Journal of Special Education, 19(2), 204.

  2. LD@School Article

  3. Journal Article on Homogeneous Classes


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