Critical Thinking for Educated Citizenship

Monique Volman and Geert ten Dam


Among the competences that are considered necessary for a democratic way of living are "consideration for others," "helping others," and "caring for each other" (Westheimer and Kahne 2004). In the past few decades, however, it has been emphasized that a democratic, pluriform society not only requires citizens to be prepared to make their own contributions to society, but also to do that in a critical way (see Ten Dam and Volman 2004; Wardekker 2001). Nowadays people are not expected to "know their place" but to "determine their own position." Of course, the extent to which a "critical" approach is valued and by whom differs, but "to be critical" has become an undeniable part of Western culture; a critical approach is frequently appreciated more than subservient accommodation. In this vein, definitions of "good citizenship" imply that citizens are willing and able to critically evaluate different perspectives, explore strategies for change and reflect upon issues of justice, (in)equality, and democratic engagement in addition to a capacity to function in a socially accepted and responsible manner within a community (Westheimer 2008). This also requires making choices and knowing why you are making that choice, respecting the choices and opinions of others, communicating about these, thereby forming your own opinion, and making it known. The interest since the 1980s in "critical thinking" as an educational goal reflects these new competences that citizenship in modern society demands.

In this chapter we focus on teaching critical thinking as a citizenship competence in higher education. First, we will give a brief overview of the various approaches to critical thinking and the strategies that have been proposed for teaching critical thinking in the last century. Building upon the premise that critical thinking can best be learned in meaningful contexts and in collaboration with others students (Ten Dam and Volman 2004), we then take a further step by focusing on the concept of communities of learners as a pedagogical concept. We differentiate between a socio-constructivist approach and a sociocultural approach and explore their potential for learning critical thinking as a citizenship competence.

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