A guiding question is the fundamental query that directs the search for understanding. Guiding questions help provide focus and coherence for units of study. imageFor educators Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins, a good guiding or essential question:
— is open-ended; that is, it typically will not have a single, final, and correct answer.
— is thought-provoking and intellectually engaging, often sparking discussion and debate.
— calls for higher-order thinking, such as analysis, inference, evaluation, prediction. It cannot be effectively answered by recall alone.
— points toward important, transferable ideas within (and sometimes across) disciplines.
— raises additional questions and sparks further inquiry.
— requires support and justification, not just an answer.
— recurs over time; that is, the question can and should be revisited again and again.
Glenn Ligon painted “How Can the Master’s Tools Dismantle the Master’s House?”image in 1990, during the period of his first experimentations with written language in painting. It cites a historic speech by the poet and activist Audre Lorde, titled “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle The Master’s House.”
Ligon transforms Lorde’s statement by turning it into a question and by reframing it within a painterly context. As Ligon’s question prompts many more questions, we ask what it tells us about the process of reading and learning.6 In the following sections, we invite you to engage more closely with it.
“I think the text in my work is often difficult to read because the ideas in the text are difficult. And so that struggle to read is a parallel to what those texts are about. The difficulty of, say, Baldwin trying to decipher his place in the world. It’s hard to make that explicit, it’s hard to explain that. So I think the difficulty of the texts is about that. Text demands to be read, so that frustration and the failure of language are interesting. To stage that and to make the viewer frustrated that there is not an easy access to any explanation of culture or identity—is the work.”
— Glenn Ligon, Interview with Patricia Bickers, Yourself in the World
Glenn Ligon’s painting cites a historic 1984 speech by the poet and activist Audre Lorde, titled, “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House.”7
Lorde’s address was directed to a crowd of predominantly white and formally educated women at a gender studies conference, convened during a fervent moment of dialog around growing feminist movements. Lorde’s speech describes her experience as one of three people of color invited to the conference, contradicting its claims to a critical and emancipatory agenda:
“Those of us who stand outside the circle of this society’s definition of acceptable women; those of us who have been forged in the crucibles of difference—those of us who are poor, who are lesbians, who are Black, who are older—know that survival is not an academic skill. It is learning how to stand alone, unpopular and sometimes reviled, and how to make common cause with those others identified as outside the structures in order to define and seek a world in which we can all flourish. It is learning how to take our differences and make themimage strengths. For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. And this fact is only threatening to these women who still define the master’s house as their only source of support.”8
A biography of Audre Lorde is available through the Poetry Foundation.
Lorde, Audre. “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House.” 1984. Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. Ed. Berkeley, CA: Crossing Press. 110-113. 2007. The full text is available online through the Catalyst Project.