Professor Michael Howe claims that hard graft and pushy parents create child prodigies and that the belief in an innate gift is harming thousands of children who are denied opportunities in the arts and sport.
Almost three-quarters of music teachers believe a child is incapable of doing well unless he or she shows a specific musical talent early on. "But for every child identified as having an innate talent and who is given encouragement and facilities, there are those who are not and who are thus being sold short, denied, excluded, shut out," Professor Howe told the British Psychological Society conference in Brighton yesterday.
He went on: "That is a powerful reason for saying we need to look into the validity of these assumptions. Unless you can show that innate talent exists, then it is probably better to assume it doesn't."
Hard evidence of prodigious talent in childhood was difficult to come by, he added. "A young child who has never seen a piano, walks up to it and starts to do wonderful things, that is something we would accept as innate. There is a lot of anecdotal evidence of this sort, but when it is analysed it almost always disappears."
Professor Howe, his colleague at Exeter University Dr Jane Davidson, and Professor John Sloboda from Keele University, initially studied young musicians but have now broadened the study to include talented children in other fields. Parental support from an early age and around 10,000 hours of practice were fundamental requirements of child prodigy, he said.
"Mozart could not have been Mozart without practice. His early years were unusual for a child, and his father [Leopold, who was also a musician] was not untypical of parents behind successful musicians now. Parental support is tremendously important."
"Idiot savants" - mentally retarded children or young adults who are usually autistic, but who show a particular ability or skill - come closest to the idea of innate talent, Professor Howe said.
Stephen Wiltshire, the young artist whose intricate architectural drawings have amazed the art world, is an example of this. "But even this does not do much for them. Their abilities are very circumscribed," he said.
Professor Howe said that all children were born different and there were many reasons why they did not have the same chance of succeeding; but the idea of innate talent was pervasive and negative, and detrimental to thousands of children who were being labelled incapable without justification.Reuse content