Students sit in a classroom at Jingshan School, one of Beijing's most elite schools, in 2013. (Sim Chi Yin for The Washington Post)

Fifth-graders in China's Shunqing district were recently asked to answer this question: “If a ship had 26 sheep and 10 goats on board, how old is the ship's captain?”

The apparently unsolvable question sparked a debate over the merits of the Chinese education system and the value it places on the memorization of information over the importance of developing critical thinking skills.

If the math problem that has the Internet scratching its head can be solved, though, the answer is unlikely to come from the domain of numbers. At least, that is the explanation being offered by the local education bureau, which it says was indeed designed to get children thinking outside the box.

“Some surveys show that primary school students in our country lack a sense of critical awareness in regard to mathematics,” a statement by the Shunqing Education Department posted Jan. 26 reportedly said.

One student offered a pragmatic law-abiding answer: “The captain is at least 18 because he has to be an adult to drive the ship.”

Another admitted defeat: “The captain's age is ... I don't know. I can't solve this."

Some Twitter users have offered their own answers ranging from actual equations to responses that incorporate Chinese boating rules and regulations.

Others have gone with 42, a reference to the science fiction novel “A Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy,” by Douglas Adams, in which 42 is the “Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, The Universe, and Everything.”

Another right answer, though, may be found in the domain of sports, where fuzzy math often reigns supreme. One such example could be extrapolated from this bit of wisdom from National Basketball Association legend Shaquille O'Neal.

“There is no answer to the Pythagorean theorem,” he once said. “Well, there is an answer, but by the time you figure it out, I got 40 points, 10 rebounds and then we’re planning for the parade.”

Translation: Get back to work!

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