AIM: To explore how clinicians perceive their roles in problem-based medical education, and how closely those perceptions link to the curriculum they teach. METHOD: All 14 general physicians in a teaching hospital took part in 6 semistructured discussions, which were analysed phenomenologically. RESULTS: Third year clinical teaching was described in terms that bore little relation to problem-based learning (PBL). Teachers placed great importance on the social dimension of professional learning. They expressed strongly positive affects towards learners and their learning that they found hard to express as PBL tutors. Their narratives of education were remarkably divorced from modern day clinical practice. CONCLUSIONS: Problem-based method lacked some important conditions for professional teaching and learning. Traditional apprenticeship is unsustainable under present day conditions of practice. There is a need for new educational methods that help the learner to build a professional identity through social interaction with practitioners.