SHELDON—Through in­­quiry-based instruction, students actively find data to support their research.

Sheldon Middle School science and social studies teachers Callie Dykstra and Tami Van Meeteren are using this student-centered form of active learning in their classrooms for social studies for the first time this academic year.

“Inquiry-based instruction is when the kids have an opportunity to investigate questions that they have on a certain topic of study,” Van Meeteren said. “Basically, they research from their questions.”

Dykstra’s sixth-grade students and Van Meeteren’s fifth-graders get to decide the course of their science and social studies classes.

“We have an idea of where we want them to go, so as they’re generating questions, we kind of guide them a little bit,” Dykstra said.

“What we’re doing, I guess, is probably a little bit more guided inquiry at this point,” Van Meeteren said. “If you just throw inquiry out, they’re not ready for that.

“Their entire educational career has been, ‘This is what I want you to learn,’” she said. “Now it’s, ‘What do you want to learn?’”

The students often have a difficult time coming up with and generating questions.

“At this point, we only have about three questions per unit that the students help us come up with,” Dykstra said. “That’s like a weeklong process to get there.”

“It is the very first time that they’re doing this, so they need that guidance,” Van Meeteren said.

She described more about the process of helping to get the students to generate questions about a subject.

“We start by giving them a compelling question so that they have something to link back to,” Van Meeteren said.

For example, the compelling question for the topic of the European immigration to the United States during the early 1900s was, “Did the American dream come true for immigrants?”

The teachers showed the students various photos of immigrants from that era and the students generated more than 50 questions from those.

“We taught the students how to prioritize questions and which ones are need-to-know questions that we will spend time on with instruction and research class time and which questions are want-to-knows,” Dykstra said. “They kind of research them if there’s extra time in class or on their own.”

The teachers and students whittled the list of more than 50 inquiries down to three supporting questions, which are the need-to-know ones.

“Part of that prioritizing is identifying open-ended questions versus closed-ended questions,” Dykstra said. “We really like to pick the open-ended, broad questions that they probably have no clue about.”

All of the extra questions — the want-to-know ones — the students generated are displayed on walls in Dykstra’s and Van Meeteren’s classrooms.

“Some of these are just too specific,” Van Meeteren said. “They’re not going to help us to figure out our compelling question.

“We could go and research, but we’re going to find the answer, and it’s going to be over and it’s going to be done,” she said.

The teachers have been building their social studies curriculum from the ground up with the introduction of inquiry-based instruction this academic year.

“It’s a little bit of a challenge,” said Van Meeteren, who has been an educator for 21 years. “It’s a whole new way of teaching.

“It’s a whole new way of thinking,” she said. “It’s really hard for me to do this, but I’m really giving it my best shot.”

Dykstra, who is in her fourth year as a teacher, thought the students have been enjoying the inquiry-based instruction.

“They’re getting an opportunity to kind of pick what they learn,” she said. “They are the vessel of knowledge. They just have to find the right piece of information.

“They are really the thinkers behind it all,” she said. “That’s something that they get to walk away from with a lot of pride.”