In the previous lesson, students explored the character of Mr Birling, analysing Priestley’s presentation of him and selecting relevant evidence to support claims about his character. Students also reflected on the connection between Mr Birling’s identity and his values, before considering their own identities and values. This critical engagement with the text and themselves laid the foundation for exploring the relationship between moral codes, values, and choices.
In this lesson, students will continue to examine the morals and values of the world which the characters inhabit, a world which Priestley meant to be representative of Edwardian society. Through this investigation, they will learn a new concept – universe of obligation – the term sociologist Helen Fein coined to describe the circle of individuals and groups within a society ‘toward whom obligations are owed, to whom rules apply, and whose injuries call for amends’.1 Understanding the concept of a universe of obligation provides important insights into the behaviour of individuals, groups, and nations throughout history. It also helps students think more deeply about the benefits of being part of a society’s ‘in’ group and the consequences of being part of an ‘out’ group.
After having explored the concept of a universe of obligation, students will continue to read the play, before starting to consider the moral choices that the characters, notably Mr Birling, made in the past. They will then explore the theme of responsibility in the form of a debate, referring to Mr Birling’s sacking of Eva Smith for leading the strike action for higher wages. It is worth remembering that Mr Birling’s sacking of Eva Smith would have occurred during the period known as ‘The Great Labour Unrest’ (1910–14), when members of the working class took to the streets in mass actions and strikes, demanding fairer workers’ rights. The activities in this lesson will deepen students’ understanding of the characters in the play and the key theme of social responsibility, whilst encouraging them to reflect on society at large and think about what forces decide who is worthy of respect and caring, and who is not.
The activities in this lesson refer to pages 10–16 of the Heinemann edition of An Inspector Calls.
Alignment with the GCSE Specification
- Critical Reading (Lit-AO1/AO3, Lang-AO4)
- Critical Thinking (Lit-AO1–3/Lang-AO1–4)
- Evidence-Based Reasoning (Lit-AO1–3/Lang-AO1–4)
- Knowledge of Content (Lit-AO1/AO3)
- Spoken Language Skills (Lang-AO8, Lang-AO9)
Students critically read the Universe of Obligation Excerpt handout, thinking first about how this framing of individual and collective responsibility relates to the world around them and then, when reading the play, how it is relevant to the character of Mr Birling. The completion of a Universe of Obligation Graphic Organiser for Birling and the preparation for the debate requires critical thought, critical reading, and evidence-based reasoning as students need to scour the play for evidence to support their views and interpretations. This process also strengthens student knowledge of the content of the play. Additionally, the debate develops students’ spoken language skills, whilst also boosting student engagement as it gives students a means of accessing the play’s content in a dynamic and interesting way. The use of discussion and writing throughout gives students the opportunity to develop and verbalise their thoughts and practise turning them into coherent sentences, which will help them across their English GCSEs.
Learn more about this unit’s Alignment with GCSE Specification.
- 1 : Helen Fein, Accounting for Genocide (New York: Free Press, 1979), 4.