Since the fall, a Montreal school has been running a pilot project which consists of bringing students to a museum one day a week for a period of six to eight weeks.
It's an opportunity for them to discover the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, the Montreal Museum of Contemporary Art, the PHI Foundation for Contemporary Art, the Planetarium, the Armand-Frappier Health Museum and the Musée des métiers d'art du Québec.
The goal of the pilot project is to measure the benefits of museum attendance on student engagement at the Le Vitrail alternative school in the Rosemont—La Petite-Patrie borough — where engagement issues are pervasive.
"Students who don't turn in work, who start it and don't finish it … we were getting to report cards and the teachers didn't have any measurable data to evaluate the students," said Le Vitrail principal Chantal Laurin.
Two groups of Grade 7 students went to the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (MMFA) every Thursday this fall to discover the collections and current exhibitions, accompanied by their French, math, social studies and visual arts teachers.
"Museum visits are used to address a variety of subjects. Science is evaluated as much as art and social studies," said Laurin.
"The teachers have really taken the elements of the Quebec school curriculum and, with the help of the [museum] mediators, have combined them to create projects that meet the ministerial requirements."
The idea of introducing long-term museum attendance was proposed by Anik Meunier, a professor of museology at Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM) and director of the Groupe de recherche sur l'éducation et les musées (GREM).
"When we talk about engagement, we're talking about the pleasure of learning, the motivation to learn," said Meunier, who observed this practice during a trip to Cuba in 2006.
"I saw that museums were hosting schools in a built heritage project in historic Old Havana," she said. "Some buildings were closed and the municipality had decided to relocate teachers and students to the museums."
Le Vitrail's initiative is the subject of a GREM research project, which aims to document the benefits of this type of practice on student engagement.
This year, Le Vitrail is taking the project even further by allowing all of its students, from the beginning of elementary school to the end of high school, to visit a museum on a weekly basis, during two six-to-eight-week periods.
'I have never seen my students be so active'
The first eight weeks of the pilot project already seem to be paying off, according to Meunier.
"The high school students who went to the Planetarium, according to their teachers, were engaged from start to finish, over eight weeks, which doesn't necessarily happen in school," she said.
Philippe Lalonde, a social studies teacher who accompanied his Grade 7 students to the MMFA, also touts the benefits of the experience.
"We saw many works from several eras," he said. "It confronts [students] with ideas. It's also an age when they are very sensitive, they are easily surprised by things, challenged. So there is a lot of learning that takes place when we have the opportunity to enter into that moment when they are shaken by a work, and to feed them with that."
Throughout the eight weeks, students carried a notebook in which they were invited to write or draw as their imagination desired.
"I have never seen my students be so active," said Marie-Josée Villeneuve-Gagnon, a visual arts teacher at Le Vitrail.
"What surprised and amazed me at the same time was to see them spring into creative action at any time, spontaneously, without being asked to do anything."
The pilot project at Le Vitrail is scheduled to end next spring.
"For the moment, we have no funding," said principal Laurin. The participating museums welcome the students for free.
The Société de transport de Montréal (STM) also transports students free of charge on its territory, she said, but the school must assume the costs of transportation off the island.
"We are trying to apply for subsidies and we are waiting for some answers," said Laurin.