Swinging for the Fences

Education interventions make a difference for learners.

Posted Mar 04, 2015

By P. Karen Murphy and Carla M. Firetto (The Pennsylvania State University)

Baseball Hall of Famer Henry “Hank” Louis Aaron was formidable at the plate with 755 homeruns in his 23-year career. Indeed, he is the only baseball player to ever hit 20 or more homeruns in 20 consecutive years and 40 or more homeruns in eight seasons. Aaron is the archetype of swinging for the fences. Of course, no player (Hank Aaron included) achieves such greatness alone, without failure, or without costs. Rather, Aaron, like other elite athletes, may be remembered for a particular statistic, but underlying that statistic is an often-unheralded journey. That unheralded journey surely involved studying the game and the great hitters like Babe Ruth, team partnerships built on trust, planning and practicing, and a great deal of courage in the face of uncertain but daunting odds.

Like Hank Aaron, education intervention researchers also dream of swinging for the fences, which for them means making a difference in the lives of teachers and their students. Intervention researchers engage in these endeavors with the goals, hopes, and aspirations of improving the very nature of classroom instruction and learning. So important is this type of research in the educational enterprise that Dr. Karen Harris, APA Division 15 President, has chosen to highlight it as a key aspect of her educational theme. Some interventions seek to bolster students’ motivation (Dweck, 2007), while other interventions aim to improve strategic processing (Graham & Harris, 2003), and still others endeavor to revolutionize how students think critically, weigh evidence, and make reasoned decisions (Li, Murphy, & Firetto, 2014). In all cases, intervention researchers are chasing the dream of transforming the everyday experiences of teachers and students. Like Aaron, sometimes the result is a homerun, but not always.

As is the case with achieving elite status in a sport like baseball, there are certain fundamental underpinnings requisite for success in intervention research. For starters, an intervention must be rooted in contemporary theoretical and empirical understandings about teaching and learning. As Harris, a self-described “theory junkie,” suggests in her APA Division 15 Presidential theme, rich, multifaceted theories are necessary to address the complex problems and challenges facing today’s educational stakeholders. Theory should drive the research questions asked and shape the instructional framework used, not to mention the methods, materials, and statistical approaches applied. 

No doubt Aaron would have been lost without his coaches and teammates. In the same way, intervention research is more apt to lead to successful outcomes when it is the product of a collaborative partnership between researchers, teachers, and students. These types of partnerships must be predicated on shared goals and established levels of trust and voice in the process. Each party brings unique experiences to the intervention and plays critical roles. As such, teachers must feel they are in a mutually reciprocal partnership with the researchers, and students must feel that they have a voice and interpretive authority over their own learning (Murphy, 2014). These types of partnerships require an investment of time and energy by all parties. Team camaraderie and trust will give way to shared decision-making and investment in the process. This is particularly important when the outcomes are unclear or those involved must adapt to uncertainty.

Indeed, uncertainty in the intervention process, place, or the social dynamics of the school context points to another key to successful intervention research. In short, intervention researchers swinging for the fences must plan their work and work their plan. But even the best-laid plans can land in foul territory as a result of unforeseen forces—like endless days of snow and ice causing school closures during cold Northeastern winters or high student transiency rates hindering the implementation of a year-long intervention. Flexible adaptation, with an eye to fidelity, is fundamental in establishing new pedagogical approaches aimed at improving student learning.

Education interventions also come at a cost. The financial resources required to conduct such research may initially appear most overtly evident—a federally-funded grant supporting research on education interventions costs millions of dollars. Yet, underlying these financial costs are the implicit costs of the human resources it takes to conduct rigorous research in real classrooms. The researchers and affiliated team members must be fully invested in the research. The research team investigating these interventions, like professional athletes endeavoring to achieve success in their sport, must pour their blood, sweat, and tears into the research. Although these terms are used figuratively, experienced intervention researchers know that they may also apply literally; the demands on human resources are not to be considered lightly. Relatedly, the time investment for such research may be tremendous. The research design may require data collection over the course of an entire school year, not accounting for the development of materials prior to implementation or the scoring, coding, and analysis that happens afterward.

Given these investments, education intervention research requires courage—the kind of courage Hank Aaron probably mustered on each approach to the plate. Researchers understand these costs well, and they recognize what is at stake. Despite situating the research in a robust theoretical and empirical foundation with a complete expectation for success, there is always a possibility that an intervention does not prove effective. Yet, researchers must make this gamble to achieve their goals of improving classroom instruction and student learning. It may feel like consummate failure to invest all the requisite time and resources only to strike out. But, the true failure is not trying in the first place. Valuable knowledge can still be garnered from well-designed education research with only modest or even non-significant findings. What counts in education intervention research is approaching the plate with the confidence that comes with being well prepared for whatever gets thrown at you. After all, there is no point in coming to bat in education intervention research unless you plan to swing for the fences. 

This post is part of a special series contributed in response to Karen R. Harris’ Division 15 Presidential theme, “Impacting Education Pre-K to Gray.” President Harris has emphasized the importance of impacting education by maintaining and enriching the ways in which Educational Psychology research enhances and impacts education at all ages. Such impact depends upon treating competing viewpoints with thoughtfulness and respect, thus allowing collaborative, cross/interdisciplinary work that leverages what we know from different viewpoints. She has also argued that we need to set aside paradigm biases and reject false dichotomies as we review research for publication or funding, develop the next generation of researchers, support early career researchers, and work with each other and the larger field. Those interested may learn more about President Harris's theme—and find all other articles in this series—here.


Dweck, C. S. (2007). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York, NY: Ballantine Books.

Graham, S., & Harris, K., R., (2003). Students with learning disabilities and the process of writing: A meta-analysis of SRSD studies. In L. Swanson, K. R. Harris, & S. Graham (Eds.), Handbook of learning disabilities (pp. 323-244). New York: NY. Guilford Press.

Li, M., Murphy, P. K., & Firetto, C. M. (2014). Examining the effects of text genre and structure on 4th- and 5th-grade students’ high-level comprehension as evidenced in small- group discussions. International Journal of Educational Psychology, 3(3), 205-234.

Murphy, P. K. (2014). Marking the way: School-based interventions that “work.” Contemporary Educational Psychology, 40, 1-4. 

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