Last week, thousands of students returned to school after a long Covid-19-forced break. Parents, students and even teachers are relieved that the schools, although only for selected standards, could be reopened.

A lot of lessons were missed. Teachers would probably have to rush to cover the lost grounds. School might go on until spring to complete the vast syllabus. Classes X and XII will have a board examination, which will determine their further educational journey. For many, it will be the end of their formal education and end up with “vocational education,” still a vocation jeered upon.

The students who returned to formal classes had a brief experience of what is now called the “future of education.” Forced out of classes and left on their own, they experienced online, phone and peer-to-peer learning besides exploring ways for independent learning. What our students and educationists experienced may be just the tip of the new iceberg. Educationists and experts are exploring and are convinced that technology is driving and determining a new education model.

There is a lot of debate and discourse on the future of education and preparing children for the future work as the world prepares for a “Fourth Industrial Revolution” characterised by shift in technological developments where new terms like Artificial Intelligence, Quantum Computing, or Supercomputing have become the norm and are already changing the way we live work.

In 2011, the Institute For the Future (IFTF) predicted future job skills. The future then was 2020. All the jobs predicted from Trash Engineers to 3D printing fabricators to Data junkies, for instance, had strong STEM subject background, mental elasticity, critical thinking as the most common skills.

It is way beyond the comprehension of a student or teacher in a remote school in Bhutan where education tools like the internet is missing. But if we are to remain relevant, it is time to rethink.

A small start has been made. Yesterday, the United Nations Development Programme and Bhutan Centre for Media and Democracy launched a conversation series. The idea is to spark new thinking and innovative ideas for a more inclusive, resilient, greener and sustainable Bhutan. The first series was on Future of Skills, Work and Education,  relevant issues as we resume work and school.

It brought many issues as to how we can reshape our school or education system in making our young workforce relevant to the future of work. Like the speakers said, the Covid-19 pandemic was a good reminder. The construction sector came to a standstill when hundreds of foreign workers left the country. Tour guides, cooks, drivers, thousands of young people in the service industry became jobless overnight. There was no hesitation to look for odd jobs. The construction sector is short of people but have to skill or re-skill the employed.

Vocational education was for the underprivileged. Thus we felt so far. It is true to a large extent because we failed to make it attractive and competitive. We realised a long time ago that the civil service and the corporations can take in only so much. We have unemployed engineers, but no plumbers. Agriculture is still seen as a backbreaking job as we are still doing it the old way.  We have more unemployed graduates because we produce thousands every year, but have failed to equip them with different skills. No wonder we see 1,000 applying for a job of a Personnel Officer, for instance.

The series talked about rethinking education, blending learning and even independent learning so that each child can discover their potentials and explore opportunities, all naturally. There were many questions about how we change our mindset from chalk to talk, of teachers becoming a guide by the side and inculcating attitude to learn.

These are relevant questions as we rethink and experience the new normal. How can we translate these brilliant ideas into reality? This is by far the more important question.

We have some serious soul-searching to do.