Adult learners are not a blank slate. According to Malcolm Knowles, the godfather of Adult Learning theory, adults arrive at a learning situation with a wealth of experience from their work and personal lives and from the education (both informal and formal) they've received up to that point.
While adults sometimes have the reputation of being set in their ways and unwilling to try new things, this stereotype does not describe the majority of adult learners, especially when they are learning voluntarily. And many adults have a lot of experience learning knew things - they have learned to learn. Experienced learners can and often do share their valuable talents and experience with others in their learning situation, and everyone is enriched. One of the best things about teaching adults is the wealth of resources adult learners bring with them to the learning situation.
In a recent presentation on experience, I was struck by the phrase, "remembering that prior learning experiences may not have all been positive." I've seen a lot of this in my encounters with young adults I taught in Camden, NJ. They had often had problematic experiences with formal schooling - everything from indifferent teachers to, in one alternative school, physical abuse and restraints by the staff. While these are extreme situations and the coping strategies the young adults had developed to survive them brought predictable difficulties when they entered training programs, even the common experience of garden-variety classroom humiliations and boredom can pose significant barriers when an adult returns to the classroom.
In the youth development organization I worked for, we chose a strategy of making the technology and academic instruction as un-school-like as possible so that we would not trigger negative responses in the youth. Even so, people were ambivalent about instruction. While they bridled at the authoritarian structures they had experienced in traditional schools, those same structures and top-down classrooms had made them dependent learners who were often initially lost or even angry when expected to take an active role in their own learning. A large part of my work there was helping people "learn to learn."
But I've also seen a problematic attitude toward learning among the people from whom you would least expect: teachers. Surely we can assume that the majority of those who choose teaching as a profession are good at classroom learning and "get" what school and learning is all about.
Yet during the mandatory continuing education seminars at a school where I taught, some of my fellow faculty were overheard to say "these things are a waste of time." They brought their eye-rolling, arm-crossing attitude with them into the seminar, twiddling their cell phones, grading on the sly, and waiting for the presenter to prove to them that this one would be different. Some participated in activities minimally and with obvious reluctance. So here, the negative prior experience with teacher training became a barrier to their own learning, since they expected the worst from the new learning situation.
In this video, Charles Jennings boils down many theories about adult learning and explains the role of experience in adult learning using the 70-20-10 model.