Democratic Education and Gifted Education: The Conceptual Foundations of Equity and Cultural Engagement

Todd Kettler

In May of 2019, Texas eliminated the designated funding for gifted education programs across the state despite the outcries of support from parents and educators. In August of 2019, New York City developed a plan to eliminate gifted and talented education in the nation’s largest school district despite evidence of exceptional gifted student achievement. A few months later in November of 2019, Seattle Public Schools phased out its Highly Capable Cohort program with an action the district officials referred to as educational justice. When educational systems and political bodies take action against gifted education, honest reflection on core values and conceptual foundations are justified.

In early 20th century American education, two educational paradigms emerged—individual differences (arising from the mental testing movement) and democratic education. Gifted education was philosophically born from the former with little or no theoretical consideration of the latter. A century later when gifted education seems somewhat out of favor, it makes sense to reflect honestly on the conceptual foundations of the field. Specifically, how might gifted education benefit from less reliance on individual differences and more formal embrace of democratic education, arguably the metanarrative of American educational systems?

Ideally, gifted education is established and practiced on valid and discernable conceptual foundations. Conceptual foundations frame how we understand giftedness, education, and talent development. The primary conceptual foundation that has undergirded gifted education for the last century has been the theory of individual differences. Individuals differ on critical traits (like intelligence), and those differences are meaningful in social, educational, and psychological ways. The theory of individual differences further led to the psycho-educational theory of exceptionalities. As individuals differ from the norm in meaningful magnitudes, those differences become recognized as exceptionalities. In some theories and even in some policies, giftedness is a recognized exceptionality. Specifically, in gifted education the trait on which individuals differ in an educationally meaningful way is cognitive ability. Therefore, gifted education has for decades been established on the foundation that students with exceptional cognitive ability need differentiated learning experiences in response to their ability.  

While the theories of individual differences and exceptionalities have a long tradition as conceptual foundations of gifted education, other theories have also emerged to supplement or even compete with the individual differences paradigm. Theories of talent development, expertise, and peak performance have increasingly guided research and practice in gifted education in recent years. Psychological theories of identity and social and emotional development have conceptually informed our understanding of gifted and talented individuals. Learning theories associated with authentic engagement such as situated learning theory and social constructivism seem to characterize the practice of gifted education especially at secondary grade levels. It is fair to acknowledge that giftedness and gifted education have been studied, practiced, and understood through multiple theoretical lenses.

But what about gifted education through a democratic education lens? While democratic education is a dominant paradigm of educational practice in American education, the relationship between gifted education and democratic education is somewhat ambiguous in our literature. The first two decades of the 20th century ushered in two driving paradigms of education in the United States. First, the mental testing movement laid the foundation for a science of individual differences and from that emerged the formalized recognition of gifted students and eventually gifted education. Second, the expanding public education systems needed an organizing principle, and that need was filled with John Dewey’s Democracy and Education published in 1916. When Dewey wrote Democracy and Education, America was confronting radically shifting foundations in the form of a devastating world war and a rapidly shifted population demographic. Dewey believed that this increasing complex social world demanded a new form of progressive education that emphasized thinking, problem solving, and deliberation. Moreover, he asserted that in a democracy, all citizens should have access to education and intellectual opportunity (Kettler, 2016).

While the conceptual foundations associated with giftedness and gifted education are theoretically diverse, they have rarely included the theory of democratic education. As we find ourselves in a similarly complex post-modern America about a century later, I suggest that (a) the ideals and principles of democratic education have evolved somewhat from Dewey’s initial conceptions and (b) it makes sense for scholarship and practice in gifted education to include conceptual foundations associated with the traditions and assumptions of democratic education.

Early to mid-20th century democratic education was associated with two big ideas: (a) Dewey’s progressive ideas for a thinking-based, problem-solving curriculum and (b) the perennialism educational philosophy. The progressive and perennialism educational philosophies included Dewey and other education leaders like Robert Maynard Hutchins and Mortimer Adler who gave us the Great Books program at the University of Chicago. That Great Books approach eventually resulted in the Junior Great Books programs that have been used quite broadly in gifted education. These perennialism concepts were later championed by E. D. Hirsh and others who supported cultural literacy and core knowledge as essential for equity and democracy. However, the culture wars of the later 20th century brought serious challenges to perennialism and core knowledge approaches to curriculum.

By the later 20th century, the influence of perennialism and progressive education could be found in gifted education in both curriculum and instruction. For instance, gifted education adopted the use of problem-based learning well before those approaches were used in mainstream education, and even now, Junior Great Books programs, Socratic Seminars, concept-based curriculum, and the Harkness Method are used in gifted education and have intellectual roots in the movements associated with democratic education. Gifted education and democratic education seemed like a good fit in some ways, but in other ways there might have been tension (e.g. ability grouping, individualization, and acceleration).

By the final two decades of the 20th century, democratic education had yielded two competing visions for the equitable education of a democratic citizenry. On one hand, democratic education had become associated with classical core knowledge. We might call this the great ideas approach. It yielded curriculum design around concepts, themes, and classical problems, and without doubt those are still valued curriculum practices in gifted education today. However, the other group of democratic educators were more embracing of Dewey’s progressive ideas that wanted to build curriculum around deliberation on contemporary issues, essentially modeling the democratic clashing of ideas and perspectives in the classroom. The incompatibility of these two approaches became most obvious in the cultural wars of the humanities (Gless & Herrnstein Smith, 1992) and the need for more culturally responsive curriculum in all education, including gifted education.

In 1987 Amy Gutmann published her seminal text, Democratic Education, criticizing both liberal and conservative visions for achieving democratic education. Gutmann offered a functionalist theory of democratic education contrasting it with capitalistic education. Moreover, she suggested that education in a capitalist state functions primarily to maintain capitalism rather than democracy. Gutmann’s interpretation of democratic education acknowledged the contrasting educational vision emerging from the expanding theory of capitalism. In other words, while democracy and capitalism both stand as valued pillars of the United States politics and policies, the two ideals may not be unified in their educational aims. Taking the side of democratic education, Gutmann argued for deliberation at the heart of democratic education. Deliberation for Gutmann meant the process of analyzing, debating, evaluating, and creating social and political practices toward a variety of ideas in diverse communities.

Though Gutmann was relatively evasive on curriculum, avoiding what might be the Dewey versus Hutchins/Adler/Hirsch divide, she provided two important principles that drive curriculum and learning spaces in the name of democracy—non-repression and non-discrimination. Non-repression allows individuals to bring their own ideas and rationalities into the political space of deliberative activity. Non-repression suggests that a democracy driven curriculum should be open and welcoming of diverse voices. Gutmann’s principle of non-discrimination insisted that all students regardless of background or political standing are afforded opportunities to the best curriculum. In other words, by the end of the 20th century, the concepts of diversity and equity were foundational to democratic education.

Even more recently, Nel Noddings (2013), added a new pedagogical vision to the precarious relationship between democracy and education. Noddings presents a compelling argument to bring the paradigm of democratic education into a new, yet equally complex, century. Specifically, she attempted to answer the question of what schools should do to accomplish the larger aims of 21st century global democracy, “preservation of the Earth, continuing evaluation of technology and its effects on social life, and how we might induce renewed commitment to personal integrity and moral concerns for the welfare of others” (p. 11).  The concepts and priorities of democratic education have evolved over the course of the last century, and presently (a) diversity, (b) equity, and (c) addressing the biggest challenges of our world currently stand at the heart of the democratic education framework. At the same time, gifted education remains paradigmatically based on individual differences and has faced renewed criticism and dwindling resources in recent years. Those criticisms are largely focused in two areas: inequity and relevance. Considering the more recent iterations of democratic education (e.g., Fallis, 2007; Fott, 2009; Noddings, 2013), the scholarship and practice of gifted education may benefit from a conceptual foundation that more fully embraces contemporary versions of democratic education. In doing so, the field could make fundamental commitments to non-repression, non-discrimination, and curriculum that includes deliberating complex problems that are ever present in the lives and futures of students. In doing so, the field can embrace diverse voices while maintaining the great ideas and classic questions of humanity, self-governance, epistemology, ethics, and technology. In other words, for a century gifted education and democratic education have remained at arm’s length. Not necessarily opposing each other, but neither fully embracing each other. Given political efforts to eliminate or suppress gifted education, it may be a good time to consider gifted education with a stronger democratic education foundation.

Gifted education in the United States exists as part of the metanarrative of democratic education. We do not recognize and develop talent in an academic or political vacuum. We develop giftedness within the ethos and logos of democracy and human flourishing. Fortunately. that metanarrative includes principles and practices that help gifted education be stronger and more culturally engaging. Gifted education within democratic education should open doors to all forms of diversity. Gifted education within democratic education should critically engage the challenges of the past, the present, and the future. Gifted education within democratic education should articulate problems and create solutions aligned with the virtues and ethics of democracy. When the field experiences political opposition, diminished funding, and educational resistance, it is reasonable to consider broader conceptual foundations that build bridges rather than walls.

About the Author: Todd Kettler, PhD., is Associate Professor of Educational Psychology in the School of Education at Baylor University, and he serves as the director of the gifted and talented education programs in the Baylor School of Education. He is the current chair of the Conceptual Foundations Network of the National Association for Gifted Children.

The views expressed here are not necessarily those of NAGC


Kettler, T. (Ed.). (2016). Democracy and education: 100th anniversary edition. Dallas, TX: Promethean Press.

Fallis, G. (2007). Multiversities, ideas and democracy. Toronto, Ontario: University of Toronto Press.

Fott, D. (2009). John Dewey and the mutual influence of democracy and education. The Review of Politics, 71, 7-19. doi:10.1017/S0034670509000023

Gless, D. J., & Herrnstein Smith, B. (Eds.). (1992). The politics of liberal education. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Gutmann, A. (1987). Democratic education. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Noddings, N. (2013). Education and democracy in the 21st century. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.