‘Unsolvable’ Math Exam Question Leaves Students Scratching Their Heads

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A math question on an exam left students scratching their heads because there was not a correct or incorrect answer. The unsolvable math question was presented on a math test to fifth-grade students in Nanchong, Sichuan province, in southwest China. The quizzical and quixotic quiz question confused curious kids. The test question was “If a ship had 26 sheep and 10 goats onboard, how old is the ship’s captain?”


Many people noticed that there is no correct answer, but students attempted to answer the wacky test question. “The captain should be at least 18 years old because a minor is not allowed by law to operate a vessel,” one student answered. “The captain is 36 years old. He is quite narcissistic, so the number of animals corresponds to his age,” another kid responded. Another youngster gave a blunt answer, “The captain’s age is… I don’t know. I can’t solve this.”


The Chinese education bureau said there was no correct answer and the purpose of the question was to push students to have critical thinking. “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,” the education bureau said. To be honest, every math problem seemed unsolvable to me.