The Cute-Purposeful Dichotomy



These are two words that I hear a lot as a kindergarten teacher, and they make me cringe.

Language is powerful, and as someone who is deeply interested in how teacher language affects the way children form identities as mathematicians and define for themselves what it means to “do math,” I spend a lot of time thinking about words.

Now, if you’re a user of “cute” and “activity” you may have stopped reading already, but I hope not. Because recently, I’ve been wondering if I’ve created a dichotomy between cute and purposeful where perhaps there shouldn’t be. So maybe you can offer me some new thoughts.

I have always defined cute as the antithesis of purposeful and meaningful. When a visitor comes into my classroom, looks at what my children are doing and responds, “They’re so cute.” “What a cute activity! You are so creative!,” I usually give them a piece of my mind.

I sometimes have to restrain myself from stepping up on my soap box and saying, “All of the work I plan and the invitations to mathematical play I extend come from serious consideration of what message I am sending about math.  I think, “When I ask my students to work on this problem, what message are they walking away with about what math is?” When I question their thinking and ask them to explain their thoughts or listen to the thoughts of others, I think, “What am I showing them about what it means to be a mathematician?”

Cute is not the message I’m looking to send. Activity, to me, means purposeless work with no real meaning behind it. Now I’m sure I’ve lost a few readers. But if you’re still here, keep reading on, even if you disagree.

This week my mathematicians and I have been talking about different ways to measure. During our Explore time, our kitchen has been converted into a vet clinic as part of our study of heroes and power. During one investigation (I much prefer this word over activity) we measured the length of the stuffed animals from our vet clinic using Unifix cubes. As I planned this investigation, I thought to myself, “What message do I want to send about measurement as a form of mathematizing? I want to show them the usefulness of measurement.”

Our stuffed animal measurement became a “Make a Bed” investigation. “Some of these animals in the vet clinic may need to spend the night in the clinic. They’ll need beds, but in order to make a bed you’ll have to figure out how to make one that fits the animal.”  So, away they went. Measuring, recording, and taking their recordings and Unifix cubes over to the Lego table to construct beds for the animals that would accommodate the length of the animal.”

The kindergarten mathematicians were beside themselves with this investigation. They made the animals talk as they measured them beds. “Don’t give me a small bed,” said an alligator through her puppeteer.

To a kangaroo one boy at the Lego table said, “Let’s see. Your bed is now eleven cubes long. As now I’m going to add some flowers to it, because all kangaroos like flowers.”

As I watched the measuring and constructing of beds, I felt a word bubbling up. A word I detest. Cute. Don’t worry, I didn’t say it aloud. Banish the thought! Is it possible for mathematicians or their work to be simultaneously purposeful and cute? Is cute always a way to belittle the importance of someone’s thoughts or work? Or is it simply a nod to the importance of aesthetic and play in our work? The talking alligator? The kangaroo’s flower bed?

I’m not sure yet, so I haven’t yet said the word aloud. Instead I said, “You really thought about how that alligator would feel in a bed that was the right length for him.” “You’re thinking the kangaroo wants a bed that is the right size and looks nice.”

So, you tell me, is there a dichotomy between cute and purposeful? I’m still figuring it out. And for now, that’s an ok place to be.


9 thoughts on “The Cute-Purposeful Dichotomy

  1. Having worked in Early Childhood for most all of my career, I do understand the dichotomy. I hate the cute and activity way of looking at the WORK that is being done. I think the problem comes in when the purpose is to be cute with a loose curricular application. I find that the moniker “cute” often undermines the value of what is being done. That being said, some of what they do is actually cute in that sweet, innocent, loving way that young children are. I work hard to avoid the word and recognize the intent behind the actions in my comments: “how thoughtful you are to consider my favorite color in the drawing.” “What great details you are adding to your illustration.” instead of saying “how cute!” After all, I want them to strive for higher goals academically and socially.

  2. You never lost me. I share the same thinking. I think the context you used the stuffed animals for was purposeful and gave meaning to the students for why we measure. The were engaged. We want to show reasons for using math and this did. Constructing their own beds would of been too much.

  3. Cute has such baggage with it. I think we are quick to dismiss cute when aesthetics are important. My classroom could not be described as cute and I am sometimes jealous of colleagues’ rooms because they look so much better. I can also be dismissive of all the things that make those rooms look better because they don’t seem powerful enough, meaningful enough, worth the time.

    I guess I’m thinking there is nothing wrong with cute as long as the learning is meaningful. It would be interesting to have a better sense of how much ‘cute’ makes a difference in student engagement (or is it all about us).

  4. It sounds like you are an outstanding teacher, who is very aware and sensitive to her environment. We must remember that the problems we project usually stem from a problem in the way we view ourselves. Also, the average person may not be as smart as you are, and may not even recognize the general misuse of the their words “cute” and “activity” in a grammatical sense. When I think of “cute” and “activity” I think of happiness and structure. We all relate word association from our own past experiences; and I believe that even though you see these words as negative, others may not. To become defensive and judgmental of others who may simply be trying to compliment you in a way that they know how, is a bit irrational. If you get upset when someone is talking to you, maybe you can clarify with that individual the situation to better enhance your communication with them. But do not assume that everyone who uses “cute” and “activity” are directly trying to offend you!

    1. Thanks for commenting, Melody.

      I think you’re absolutely right on that “cute” and “activity” can hold different meanings for different people. I think the point that I wanted to get across is that I’m trying to be more purposeful and thoughtful in my language–and that maybe I’m too hard on words that I don’t associate with purposefulness.

      I don’t think anyone is trying to offend me—that’s my not being clear in my writing or being to too tongue in cheek with “give them a piece of my mind” if that’s what came across.


  5. I have worked with young children for many years. The word cute often comes up. I think it depends on the school you work for, and the age of the children and what you are trying to accomplish. Cute seems to be a word that really is used by parents. They need to realize that all “activities” also have meaning behind them. I sometimes feel like when everything is labeled as cute, the real meaning of the lessen is not realized. As long as the children get something out of the lesson, and they do not mind things being called cute, it is all right. Make it meaningful for the children, they are who really matter.


    1. Nicole,
      I think you bring up a great point about cute. If the only purpose of something is that it’s cute maybe we need to re-look at it. But if it’s purposeful and cute—maybe not. I’m still thinking about all these issues of language. Thanks for pushing my thinking.


  6. I too avoid the use of the terms “cute and activity” when working with or describing the things in my classroom. I view my classroom as a cognitive and physical environment. The thinking and learning of the students is the focal point.
    In your example of measurement with the bears the children are thinking, manipulating, and discovering the concept of measurement. This is real purposeful work framed in a context that kindergarten children can manipulate with familiar objects. The thinking and learning that takes place can and will be applied to later learning opportunities because it is a valuable experience. Using the term cute may diminish the depth of the task.
    Young children themselves can be described as cute at times. However, the child’s ability to think and learn should not be underestimated!
    My background includes Montessori philosophy. Montessori believed in giving the child the scientific and/or real terminology when working with materials.
    It is frustrating for me to see classrooms decorate in a cute way or develop a superficial activity to “go with” instruction. I have found that young children are more engaged when working with real objects and completing work that is valued. I want my students to engage in purposeful investigations that challenge their thinking so they can extend ideas to construct meaning, not participate because it looks cute. As educators we must trust the child and allow them to explore and learn!

  7. I am not a fan of cute nor activity. I agree they seem to devalue the purpose behind the lesson. I have struggled to find a word to replace activity, thanks for investigating! As for cute… I am coming along with this word. It all started when I used the word as a joke to a colleague who held the same feelings about the word. As we threw the word around we began to realize cute only speaks to the ascetics of the investigation. It doesn’t have to devalue the purpose of the learning, it simply invites an audience and then the kids can explain the learning behind the investigation.

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