In 1917, Columbia established the Lincoln School of Teachers College “as a laboratory for the working out of an elementary and secondary curriculum which shall eliminate obsolete material and endeavor to work up in usable form material adapted to the needs of modern living.” The Lincoln School built its curriculum around units of work.
A third grade curriculum unit on boats (Curtis, 1927) was inspired by the day-to-day life of the Hudson River. The study of boats involved history, geography, reading, writing, arithmetic, science, art, and literature. Children concentrated on different aspects depending on their own interests and needs. There were diverse student activities with both collaborative and individual exploration.
You can read about this unit in Cremin’s excellent historical study and in a book by Curtis compiling some of the student work itself.
Boats is the outcome of studies which began with visits to the Hudson River and with the making of small ship models in the third grade of the Lincoln School of Teachers College in 1919, and further developed with successive classes. . . Just as each subsequent class used some of the records left by previous classes, so other children and other classes may derive certain values from use of this book. But it must be remembered that this study did not start with a book, nor did it depend on records of activities of other children for its original impetus. (Curtis, 1927)
Unit studies in this sense have continued in many forms, notably in some forms of home schooling, boys and girls clubs, and 4-H.
- Cremin, Lawrence Arthur (1964). The transformation of the school: Progressivism in American education, 1876–1957. New York, NY: Vintage. [pp. 280-291]
- Curtis, Nell C. (1927). Boats; adventures in boat making, by third grade children and their teacher Nell C. Curtis; with linoleum block illustrations by the fifth grade, the Lincoln School of Teachers College, Columbia University. Chicago, New York: Rand McNally.