Running an Alternative Education System–With Steve Cooperman

steve-facilitate-open-space1What are the challenges of running an alternative educational system? And why do we need one in the first place? Steve Cooperman has been involved with alternative education since childhood. In this interview, he shares some of the challenges involved with structuring alternative learning environments and gives his insight into how he thinks we’re able to learn most efficiently.

About Steve Cooperman

IMG_0106-2Steve Cooperman is an organizational leader, consultant, trainer, coach and mentor with extensive business and non-profit experience interested in helping bring new paradigm into the world – one that supports freedom, self-expression, systemic, holistic thinking, and personal/collective growth – in support of creating living, healthy local eco-systems.

He is currently the Learning Ecosystem Developer of Black Mountain SOLE, a  self-organized learning environment for higher education located in Black Mountain, NC.

Interview Transcript

(Audio transcription done by Speechpad)

Alex: Hi there, change makers. My name is Alex Cequea, and I
highlight the best in the world of social good. My guest today
is using alternative learning systems to revolutionize the way
that we learn.

Steve Cooperman is an organizational development leader, consultant,
trainer, and coach. He has spent the majority of his life
exploring alternative learning models. Currently, he is the
learning ecosystem developer of Black Mountain SOLE, which
stands for self-organized learning environment, and it’s located
in Asheville, North Carolina.

Steve, thank you so much for being here.

Steve: You’re welcome. And actually, just to be clear, we’re in Black
Mountain, North Carolina, which is just outside of Asheville.

Alex: Gotcha. It’s about 20 minutes, if that’s right.

Steve: That’s correct. Mm-hmm.

Alex: Very cool. In the mountains.

Steve: Oh, yeah.

Alex: Best place for an alternative learning system. So let’s start
there, and I want to ask you this very big, loaded question that
we could talk about for hours. But if you could succinctly
answer it in three words or less. No, I’m just kidding. Just in
a short answer, why alternative learning systems?

Steve: Well, I’ll just speak from my own experience, that when I
reflected on my education system, and also for a lot of the
people who were part of the founding of this project, was that a
lot of the most important learning experiences actually happened
outside of the formal education system. They happened outside of
the classroom.

And so we decided to look at how can we structure a learning
environment that is built off of that understanding of how do
people learn the best. What’s the best way, the most efficient

From my perspective, the current educational system is very efficient
from a teaching perspective. So the teacher can prepare a
curriculum. It’s very efficient. Okay, we’re going to learn
this, and we’re going to take this much time. So they’re in
control. But it isn’t necessarily the most efficient way for the
person to learn.

So I have a belief that everybody has a unique way of learning. They
have the unique path, unique interests. And that, again, looking
at my own experience, the most profound learning in my life has
happened from me being in a place of being highly motivated, so
I’m totally receptive to learning at that point, and I either go
out and find something that’s going to give me the answer, or
help me get the answer to that question, or the person or the
experience shows up right at the time for me to get that

Does that make sense?

Alex: Yeah, that makes sense. So you’re saying the established
learning systems that we have don’t meet that.

Steve: Yeah. And I’m not suggesting that we should just throw those
out. There might be people that there is the best system for at
this time. And so, in terms of structure, we talk about…
because a lot of people hear what we’re doing and think, oh,
you’re saying, oh, just no structure, people just doing whatever
they want.

Alex: Right.

Steve: Which we joke about. My sister went to a camp when she was a
kid that was called Camp Dowhatyouwanna. And so we now have the
joke. That’s what this is.

But really, it’s that different people have different needs, even at
different times, for structure. So sometimes the unstructured is
what they need at that time, and sometimes it’s like, oh, well,
I want to learn about communication. Oh, here’s this workshop
that I really resonate with. I’m going to go take this workshop.
Or we have a bunch of people who, pretty much at the same time,
are at a place where they need to learn, they want to develop a
website. So they’re in a place where they have a real problem
that they want to solve. And so either they find somebody to
teach them, they might find an online resource, there might be
somebody within our group that can teach. So there’s lots of

Alex: So tell me a little bit about… let’s back up, now, because I
want to know about you. How did you start in this field?

Steve: Well, I actually had a passion for education when I was very
young. When I was in high school, I took a self-directed study
where I was teaching in the third grade class. And then my high
school experience was alternative, in that we didn’t… there
was an open campus. We got to pick all our courses. There were
no bells. So in a lot of ways, it was very unique. And I grew up
in the ’60s and ’70s, so it was a lot more open and free,
experimenting with that whole world.

But then I went to a traditional university, and had a certain
experience there. Then later, I went to an alternative for a
master’s program. I took an alternative program in education, so
I got my master’s in education. Taught for a year at an
alternative school.

But then ended up going back into… so I have kind of these two
threads of my life, business and education. So I ended up doing
business consulting and getting into the field of organizational
development, which has to do with organizational change. How do
you create transformation, and how do you create learning in
organizations. So I was exposed to a lot of new models that
really resonated with me, in terms of how to create change and
how to create really deep learning and wisdom, as opposed to
just knowing how to do something.

And then, it’s a whole long story, how I got back into the education
field. Somebody lent me this book called “Free At Last,” which
is about the Sudbury Valley School, which is a school where it’s
a very free environment. And so just from my curiosity, I began
exploring all these different models, and ended up coming upon

I read the book “Teenage Liberation Handbook,” and really resonated
with that because again, that was kind of my process. When I had
something in my life that I was curious or passionate about, I’d
go investigate it, find somebody to teach me, whatever, and then
eventually find some way to earn a living doing it. So in some
cases, actually getting paid to learn it, which was pretty cool.

Alex: The best.

Steve: So then, from this exposure to unschooling, I said, oh, this
sounds great, but I want to go have an experience of it. So
there was this camp, not back to school camp, that I went and
worked at. And that experience, I not only saw the power of this
education, where it was more making the learner more
responsible, and giving them more freedom to choose what they
learned and how they learned it, but also the power of the
community, which was in this environment where people were given
the ability to express themselves in their own unique way.

You might think that, oh, that just means everybody’s going to be
super selfish. But in fact, when everybody has that orientation,
what I saw was that they were also supportive of other people
doing the same. So it was actually… there was more of a sense
of community, more of a sense of inclusion, more of a sense of
collaboration than what I would see in a traditional education

Alex: Can you give me an example of the types of things that people
are learning and how they’re collaborating?

Steve: In terms of in our project?

Alex: Sure. Or in your experience with the field. What are some of
the things that you can learn… well, talk about this project.
Let’s get into it. So you’re in Black Mountain SOLE, right? How
did you get involved with this project?

Steve: That’s a whole… way too long of a story to tell. But
basically, I was looking for what was next in my life, and
happened to email Katie Cleary, who had been involved in this
other alternative education project that I was involved with,
which is called the Bonnell Project, and was part of a group, a
community of practice that was called Team Insight, which was a
community of practice around organizational and social

And I just happened to email her about, I was going to go visit this
co-working space. And she emailed me back. “Oh, you won’t
believe it. I just got contacted by this group that’s starting
this project called Black Mountain SOLE, which is an alternative
education program.” And obviously I was very interested.

And so I came down for their open house this past May, met them.
Katie was bringing me in because she felt like they would get
some value from going through a visioning/strategic planning
process that I could facilitate. So I came down, talked to them
about that, came back and facilitated that. And at the end of
that, they said, “Hey, we basically consider you part of our
team. Why don’t you stay around?”

So I did. So we actually launched officially in September, although
we had some people come early. So we’ve only been actually in
operation for however… like, four months. September, October,
November. Three months. So we’re very new. And we have about 20
people who are now… you can be in residence, or you can
commute in, or you can actually be remote. There’s the ability
to participate remotely.

People are sharing their projects they’re working on. Their passions,
whatever. So basically, how we articulate it is we say
everybody’s got a unique passion, unique path, unique process,
unique ways of learning. And that the way they access that is
through accessing… there’s something inside them, their inner
wisdom, their inner knowing, their inner voice. By accessing
that, they can then figure out what works best for them.

And, at the same time, people have those unique paths, but those
paths often cross.

Alex: Interesting.

Steve: So we get in the room, we create ways, both formally and
informally, for people to share what they’re learning, what
they’re interested in, what their provocative question might be.
And oftentimes, it is instantly clear. “Oh, yes. I’m also trying
to answer that question.” Or somebody’s got a project, and
another person says, “Oh, that sounds really cool. I want to
help you with that.”

Alex: So give me an example of projects that people are working on.

Steve: Well, one guy is building a 3D printer.

Alex: Wow.

Steve: We’ve got somebody who came here specifically because they
wanted to learn what we were doing and see if they could take it
back to where they are. And actually… and from that, has
started to develop what is called MOOC Campus. And a MOOC is a
massive open online course. So basically, all the online course
work. And creating… which was actually an idea we had
originally, but we didn’t want to limit it to MOOCs. But a place
where people who are using MOOCs as part of their education,
where they can do it with other people doing the same. So create
more of the peer learning environment. So that’s a project that
he started, and other people here are helping him out with that.

Some people don’t have a specific… they don’t come with a specific
project. They’re just coming to learn… potentially just find
out what their passion is, or what their path might be.

Alex: Okay.

Steve: And so there’s more of a self-exploration that’s going on. So
it’s very diverse in that way.

Alex: Interesting. So part of the learning, part of the learning
environment… so you don’t have to know what you want to do.

Steve: Absolutely not.

Alex: Gotcha. Part of the learning might be…

Steve: There’s actually been a tension. It’s one of the things, and
been one of the challenges, is because many of the people in the
environment are more working on a project. And so we’ve had this
whole dialogue around the people who are, at this point, more in
the minority of trying to find what they want to be doing, that
there’s nothing wrong with that. And in some ways, some of those
people had some of the most profound learnings in their
experience, because they got more in touch with… they came
here with some idea of this may be, this is what I want to do.
And in being in this environment, and getting more focused on
what they’re passionate about, what they’re really here to do…

Because that’s what we think is the core of our process, is to help
people get in touch with that. And that there’s a lot of
programming, conditioning, limiting beliefs that get in the way
of that. And it’s…

So some of what happens is the decompression. Being in an environment
where, for the first time, they have 100% freedom to make all
their choices. And what that means, and what they come up
against in that. So sometimes people come up against, “Hey, you
should…” You know, “Why aren’t you creating this for me?” And
our, my response would be, “Well, if that’s something that you
want, we can help you create that. But we are not… that’s not
our job. That’s not our responsibility. We’re not doing that.”

Alex: I see. So you provide the space, and there’s a lot of
accountability, sounds like.

Steve: Yeah. I mean, we make it…

Alex: I mean…

Steve: We have the conversations about what support is available, what
support looks like from our side.

Alex: Right.

Steve: We offer coaching. We say, look, we think this is really
helpful, can be very valuable, is helping facilitate your
process of getting clear on those things. And we’re not going to
insist that you do it, and we’re not even going to insist that
you use one of us. And you might start… at the beginning, we
had a process where we introduced ourselves and said, look, we
can be your coaches if you want one, or if you want to try out a
bunch of different people and see what that experience is. You
might want to start with one person and realize, oh, this isn’t
really working.

Because there’s also this piece from my experience that is not just
learning from somebody who has the knowledge, but there’s also a
piece around who you resonate with. So you might learn better
from one person. There might be multiple people out there who
know what you want to learn. But there might be one person who
you learn better from, just from their style, or from the
connection there.

Same things with coaches and mentors. From a mentor/coach standpoint,
a lot of it has to do with somebody who really sees the gifts
that you have. And some… I mean, my experience is there are
some people that I just, for whatever reason, I have more
connection with.

Alex: Right. What about…

Steve: So we have coaching, and then we have processes for people to
get to share what they’re working on.

Alex: Right.

Steve: But also, from the… we’ve tried to make it really clear to
people, look, if you have something that you want to bring to
the group, or something that you want that you’re not getting,
we can create structures for that to be brought up, and we
can… if that’s not working, we can come up with something new.

Alex: Gotcha. Now, this is… I’m curious. I have a couple of
questions about the people and the model. The business model for
it. One is, how… what is the sort of target person that would
be interested in this? Are you… do you have people who,
instead of being in high school, are part of this project? Or is
this mostly for people who maybe are outside of high school, and
don’t want to… want to figure out what they want to do after?
Is it for people later in life?

Steve: Yes. All of those things.

Alex: All of the above.

Steve: No, it’s really for… I mean, I would say… and generally,
we’ve defined it as higher education and above. It could be
somebody who’s just finishing high school and wants to explore
before going to college, or explore if that’s really what the
best option is for them. We did have somebody that was in high
school that was in a place where they resonated enough with what
we were doing that they came.

We have people who are older, who are at a point in their life where
they realize, oh, they’ve been doing this work for all their
life, and that it isn’t really what they’re passionate about.
They may have some idea of what that might be, and needing to go
more deeply in how they could actually manifest that
practically. Or they may have a very clear picture of, oh, this
is what I want to create, but I need help in learning. I might
not have the skills to do that. And in some cases, it’s finding
the partners to do it. Because it’s not that they have to
develop the skills.

Alex: Gotcha.

Steve: So we have the full range. And we have people come are coming
and like, yeah, I definitely don’t work well in the traditional
education arena, so I resonate with this idea that, yes, it’s my
unique path, my unique choices. And I want to be around other
people who think like me, and who really just want to go out and
make it happen.

Alex: Gotcha. So how does it work? People come there, and they live
there, or they come every day? What is that structure like?

Steve: Yeah. So currently, most of the people are in residence. We’re
at the YMCA Blue Ridge Assembly at Black Mountain, which is
owned by the YMCA. And they have extra space that we’re renting.
And it actually happens to be the former home of Black Mountain
College, which was an alternative education experiment that
happened from 1933 to about ’56 or ’57.

Alex: Wow.

Steve: And so we have a residential hall, and we also have a building
where there’s more like classroom spaces, where we have co-
working, co-learning going on. And it’s very flexible. We’re
changing the setup all the time, as a community.

Alex: Hmm.

Steve: And so most of the people are in residence, and some people

Alex: What does that mean? What does that mean, “in residence”?

Steve: It means they live here, and so they’re here…

Alex: They live in dorms? You have dorms?

Steve: Yeah.

Alex: Or you have…

Steve: We have this residential building.

Alex: Gotcha.

Steve: It’s more dorm-like. People are one or two people in a room.
And we’re also doing… we have a community room and also a
kitchen, so we’re preparing meals as a community, which is a
whole other story.

And so… but there are some people who live in town and commute. We
also have… you can participate remotely online, just being
what we call a soul mate, and sharing what you’re working on,
and creating opportunities for other people to plug into that,
or for you to plug into what’s going on here.

We have people who have been here since September, but we have people
who come in for a couple of months and leave. We have people who
come in for a few days and leave. We had somebody who came in,
and came in for a day to deliver, to share what they were really
passionate about. They were a PhD student. And based on that,
they came back and did a three-day workshop for whoever wanted
to do that.

Alex: Cool. Awesome.

Steve: Yeah. It’s just like, it’s very dynamic, and it’s also very
hard to explain what’s going on. A lot of people, that’s the
question. They resonate with the philosophy and the approach,
but then the how, or the what’s actually going to happen if I
come there?

Alex: Right.

Steve: And so we do our best to explain that. And oftentimes the best
thing to do is come have an experience of it, and see if it fits
for you.

Alex: That’s really cool. I’d love to come and check it out for a few
days. That would be really fun.

Steve: We would love to have you, Alex.

Alex: So tell me a little bit about the challenges that come up with
setting up a system like this. What are some of the challenges
you’ve experienced?

Steve: Well, the biggest challenge… I would say I had somewhat of an
assumption that people who were resonating with this were going
to have an easier time with this idea of taking responsibility
for their own life and their choices.

Alex: Right.

Steve: And so despite all that we shared with people, there were… I
mean, I’m getting more clear about the decompression that
happens. As much as people can say, “Oh, yes, this is what I
want,” the conditioning and the programming and all of that is
deep. And so people, some of the people have really struggled
with that.

Alex: So…

Steve: And so we’re exploring, well, what’s the kind of support that
these people need? How do we provide it and still be true to our
principle that we want to… we really… what I believe is the
most unique thing about what we’re doing is that we’re giving
people 100% responsibility for the choices they make. That at
any point where we start to say, oh, you should do this, you
have to do this, we want to say, why does anybody have to do

So what we want to do is be as clear as we can. We want to get better
at articulating that up front to people when we interview them,
on our website, and just be prepared for those people that are
going to struggle with that, and how we can best support them.
So that’s…

Alex: How does the struggle show up, though? It’s… how does that
show up for them? They get overwhelmed? They have too many
choices? They don’t know what to do next? Like, how does that
show up?

You talked about the decompression. I’m curious about that.

Steve: Well, for some people… I mean, some people handle even that
decompression well, where they were spending time going off,
being by themselves. But wrestling with, oh, I’m just going off
and being by myself, and I’m not being productive. Versus seeing
that that has real value.

So a lot of… so that was a very common theme. Seeing other people
who’ve been super productive, like, actually working on stuff,
and other people whose process was more needing to go off and be
by themselves, reflect, journal, whatever it was, and think,
“But I’m not being productive.”

And some people were able to recognize, “Oh, but this is my process,”
and be okay with it. And other people, I think, weren’t able
necessarily to resolve that tension. Although, I mean, again,
some of them may have that I don’t know about.

Alex: So, yeah, that’s very interesting. So back to the business
model question. How does it work when people stay there for two
months? They just pay for that time? What is the business model?

Steve: Yeah. The business model — and it’s also part of the
experiment — was set up to be basically tuition-free. That
people are paying for their food and lodging, and with the idea
that there’ll be a pay-it-forward, that people will get so much
out of it that, down the line, they’ll want to support other
people to be able to have that same experience, or other people
who haven’t been here but just want to support the model in that
way. So that’s part of the experiment, as well. We really want
to make this available to whoever is looking for this

There are options, and that’s one of the things we’re exploring, is
it could… that’s one of the reasons why we’re in the process
of potentially looking at setting up a satellite location in
Asheville. Because right now, for the people who would like
to… who can’t really afford it, but want to be generating
money to pay for even the basic expenses, there aren’t a lot of
those kind of jobs available in Black Mountain. It’s a small
town. Whereas Asheville has a lot more going on. So if we had a
satellite location there, the people who needed to do that could
work, but also be plugging into what we’re doing.

Now, I will say, I’m going to be encouraging a lot of people to come
and be in residence here, because one of the things I think has
happened, being in residence, is that we’re away from
everything. So it’s a great environment for decompressing. So
there’s a lot of stuff to do. At the same time, there’s no need
to interact with the old… with any kind of environment that’s
operating under the old paradigm that people are telling you
what to do. So showing up at a job and saying, “Okay, you’ve got
to be here from this time to that time.” There’s certainly
practical reasons to have an environment like that, and I
believe there’s some real profound things that are happening
with people being in an environment where, okay, you’ve got 100%

Alex: Wow.

Steve: There’s a lot of learning. And what that means, and all the
stuff that comes up, and processing through that. Being in a
supportive environment where it’s okay, you might struggle, you
might go a couple months and be doing nothing, or a month, or
what looks like doing nothing. So…

Alex: Gotcha. So what did you envision as the future of Black
Mountain SOLE? In three words or less.

Steve: Exactly. Yeah, I’m imagining that we’re going to continue to
explore how to articulate what we’re doing, and how we might
create similar environments in other places. And because place
is also part of it. Depending on where you are, you’re making
yourself… you have access… even though through the…

Because one of the things that we believe is, okay, through the
internet, you have access to anything.

Alex: Right.

Steve: All the information is out there. And there’s some very
specific things that you get from where you are. So being in
Asheville gives… there’s, you know, it’s a real hub for
sustainability, for alternative education, for alternative
health, for arts, culture and arts. So there’s a whole bunch of
opportunities by being here. And by just going out and being in
the community, you meet people that have certain pieces. So I’m
a big believer in the kind of face-to-face thing, as well.

And we have people who show up and start going through their process,
and the opportunity that they’re looking for isn’t here, and
they leave. And that, for us, is a success. So, for instance, we
had somebody who came here wanting to develop… become a health
and wellness coach, and develop their own program. And when they
went home for Thanksgiving, they… it happened to be family
members, but actually wanted to hire them to be their coach.

Alex: Wow.

Steve: So that was really cool.

Alex: Wow.

Steve: Or we had somebody who came here specifically to launch their
new business. And while they were doing that, they applied to an
incubator, various incubators, and got accepted into an
incubator in Philadelphia. So they left.

Alex: I see. And you see these examples as success stories.

Steve: Sure. Yeah. We don’t know where somebody’s supposed to be.

Alex: Right.

Steve: So if that’s the choice, they’re making that choice of, like,
yes, this is where I need to be, then I’m excited.

Alex: Cool. Very cool. So what… okay, I’ll ask you one last
question, and this is a tough one. What advice do you have for
the change makers who are watching right now who say, “I want to
get into this field,” or, “I’m interested in this.” What should
they know?

Steve: Yes, Alex. Three words or less. I will not be able to answer
that. Yeah, there’s… maybe we will… I’ll do my own podcast
on that question.

Yeah. I mean, for me, the advice I give to people — and I was saying
this to you earlier — is the most important thing is self-
knowledge, self-awareness, and getting in touch with that inner
knowing, inner wisdom. That I believe that we’re all set up to
attract the exact experiences, the exact people in our lives.
And most of the reason that doesn’t happen all the time is we
get in our own way trying to control things, and not acting from
our true inner nature.

So any kinds of things that you can do to develop that ability will
take you to where you’re supposed to be, and help create the
change on the planet that I think is happening regardless of
what we’re doing. It’s going to happen anyway, and it’s just a
matter of what that’s going to look like.

But, I mean, for me, I’m most excited about getting together with the
other people who are in this space. I think that’s a really
important thing that I want to see happen. Because when we get
together, we really… there is a need for support, because most
of the people really are seeing the world in a certain way that
I think that we all have in common, the people who are working
in this space, in terms of what I would call the transition from
the old paradigm to the new paradigm.

So every time I get together with those people, and when those people
show up here, and those are the kinds of people that are showing
up here, that’s what gives me more energy to continue doing the
work that I’m doing.

Alex: Beautiful.

Steve: I don’t have any idea if that answered the question you asked.

Alex: I think you did somewhere in there.

Steve: Yeah.

Alex: Somewhere in there. No, that’s great. That’s great wisdom. I
appreciate that. Know thyself, and be part of the change, and
connect with others who are doing the same.

Steve: Thank you. I think maybe I’ll bring you around. You can
summarize what I’m saying for all of us.

Alex: Yeah. I got it. I’ll summarize what he just said.

No, absolutely, I love it. Thank you so much for doing this
interview, and for chatting with us. If people want to find out
more about Black Mountain SOLE, where should they go?

Steve: The Internet. I think the website is either or

Alex: Okay. They can Google it.

Steve: They probably both work. They can Google. If they can’t Google,
they’re in trouble.

Alex: Okay.

Steve: And if anybody wants to either email me directly or call me to
talk, feel free.

Alex: Okay. Great. All right. I’ll have Steve’s email or contact
information below here, to make it easy.

Steve: Over there.

Alex: That’s right.

Steve: Down there.

Alex: Right. Well, thank you so much, Steve.

Steve: Thanks, Alex.

Alex: And see you guys later.


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