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‘Unsolvable’ Fifth-Grade Math Problem Is a Real Head Scratcher


Remember math class? If you’re anything like us, you probably got an assignment with at least one or two word problems that seemed totally unsolvable. That is, until your teacher explained the correct answer, much to your awe and amazement. Well one math problem given to fifth graders in China made the rounds on social media for being truly unsolvable. We aren’t joking — it has no correct answer.

At Nanchong Shunqing Primary School in China, a group of hardworking 11-year-olds were in the middle of completing a math test when one problem stopped them all in their tracks. Translated to English, the question reads, “If a ship has 26 sheep and 10 goats on board, how old is the ship’s captain?”

If you’re scratching your head, you’re not alone! We wouldn’t even know where to start with this one. But we give kudos to the smart kids who did their absolute best to answer an unanswerable question. One wrote, “The captain should be at least 18 years old because a minor is not allowed by law to operate a vessel.” Another guessed, “The captain is 36 years old. He is quite narcissistic, so the number of animals corresponds to his age.”

That’s a lot more creative than anything we would’ve come up with! Unsurprisingly, this question got uploaded to the internet and many folks have balked at the school for assigning such an impossible question to young children.

That said, the school had a pretty eye-popping response. In a statement, the Shunqing District Department of Education defended the question by explaining that the exam was designed to test students’ abilities outside of traditional math problems and to asses other skills like critical awareness and their capability to ask questions.

“Some surveys show that primary school students in our country lack a sense of critical awareness in regard to mathematics,” the educators said in the statement, translated to English. “The role of education is not to produce standardized spare parts. Each answer can reflect a different personality. A question that can have different answers is a good question.”

What do you think? Would you give your child or grandchild an “unsolvable” math problem like this?

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