‘Average with flashes of brilliance’: Dual Multiple Exceptionality and Mathematics

By Dr Adam Boddison, Chief Executive, nasen

Some of my proudest career moments have come from my time as a mathematics teacher in both primary and secondary schools. It was through better understanding my own strengths and weaknesses as a teacher and through constantly developing my knowledge of how my students learnt that I discovered DME. For those who may not be familiar with this term, DME is Dual and Multiple Exceptionality and it refers to those who have both high learning potential and one or more special educational needs or disabilities.

It is not always easy to identify children with DME because their abilities can mask their needs just as their needs mask their abilities, so they can appear to be ‘average with flashes of brilliance’. In many classrooms these children may appear to be an average child, but the reality is that their needs are not being met and their potential is not being realised.

To progress in this area, there are political and cultural barriers that need to be overcome. Politically, DME is not currently recognised as a special educational need, which adds an additional layer of complexity to identification. Culturally, there is a perspective from some that students who are coping and have high learning potential are going to do okay anyway, so why ought we to invest the nation’s scarce resources into this group. Of course, this perspective can vary significantly depending upon which lens these children are viewed through. Seeing DME children as a subgroup of those with SEND can be interpreted very differently to seeing DME children as a subgroup of those with high learning potential.

In statistical terms, it is difficult to quantify how many children and young people may have DME, but a conservative estimate is 1 in 100. So there may be very few of these children in your school or even in your mathematics classroom, but if there were any, would you know what signs to look out for and what provision to put in place?

In thinking about how DME might manifest itself in a mathematics classroom, it is worth noting that there is no checklist. There are some indicators, but ultimately it is about better knowing the child.

One of the indicators you might look out for is inconsistency. For example, a student might be able to produce excellent written work, but struggles to answer questions verbally in the classroom or to communicate their ideas in any other format. Interestingly, there are many excellent mathematicians in universities around the world who are research leaders in their fields, but who also struggle with the teaching element of their roles.

Conversely, a student may be able to answer verbally any question directed at them in the classroom using superior language and to be able to conceptualise the bigger picture, but when it comes down to answering written questions, they seem to struggle. The point here is that there are flashes of brilliance within the inconsistencies. As a teacher, it is worth reflecting on what sets of circumstances are required to bring out those flashes of brilliance. With the right environment and with barriers to learning removed, the brilliance can become a more regular feature of their learning.

A second area of inconsistency to watch out for is a mismatch between the mathematical talents that are being displayed inside and outside the classroom. For example, I taught a student who was in the bottom set for maths because he had regularly scored poorly in the end of term tests. He didn’t seem interested in maths at all, but then his form tutor told me that he was a “wizard at Sudoku” and I found out from his parents that he watched Countdown religiously and could often complete the numbers game mentally before the time limit. I came to understand that this student had an attention deficit disorder and could not concentrate for any period of time more than about five minutes, so he appeared to be disinterested in lessons and he completely switched off in tests. Knowing this simple fact transformed his experience of maths. My Head of Department was not easy to convince, but in the end he allowed me to move this student into my top set for maths. I provided the student with a series of very short tasks in lessons that covered roughly the same content as the rest of the group and it worked. Indeed, his self-esteem was significantly better for it too.

Another indicator to watch out for is coping strategies. I once taught a student who struggled to write down their mathematics, so they would try to say something impressive to steer the lesson into a discussion, thereby minimising the amount of writing time. For example, when teaching indices to this class, I explained the rule that a0=1 and the student immediately said, but what about 00. This insight itself was another example of a flash of brilliance.

In thinking about what kind of provision to put in place, it should ideally be a combination of high quality differentiation that removes barriers to learning and truly stretches the student, alongside effective special educational provision that removes barriers to learning and meets the needs of that specific child. The provision will depend on exactly what the needs are, but it is worth remembering that these children may respond to the provision differently to other students due to their high learning potential.

More broadly, as a classroom teacher it is worth engaging both the SENCO and the gifted and talented coordinator in the school as the student may have operated under the radar of both, but may actually benefit from the opportunities and support available. It is important to ensure that the parents and the students themselves are brought into the discussions too and that they are part of planning the provision.

Read more in our new report, The Lost Middle: how the term ‘average’ can obscure student problems and potential